Saturday, September 4, 2010

Why Drug Stigma Still Matters

More sinned against than sinning?

 “Psychological theories of illness are a powerful means of placing the blame on the ill. Patients who are instructed that they have, unwittingly, caused their disease are also being made to feel that they have deserved it.”
--Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor

Addiction is always a hot topic, in its way, if only because of an endless supply of fallible starlets. More seriously, valuable research is taking place in myriad directions—the psychology of addiction, the disease of addiction, the neurobiology of addiction, the neuropsychopharmacology of addiction, etc. What sometimes goes missing is any serious analysis of the stigmatization of drug addiction.

The UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC) is an independent research group comprised of 12 “expert commissioners” charged with providing objective analysis on drug policy matters. The group recently issued a paper authored by Charlie Lloyd of the University of York. In “Sinning and Sinned Against: The Stigmatisation of Problem Drug Users,” (PDF) Lloyd set out to pull together the evidence-based research on the effects of stigmatizing  “problem drug users.” The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) defines problem drug use as “injecting drug use or long-duration/regular use of opioids, cocaine and/or amphetamines.”

According to Lloyd’s analysis of the research literature, the groups most frequently referred to as stigmatized are the disabled, the mentally ill, minority ethnic groups—and drug addicts. To make matters worse, multiple problems often attach to addicts: “Problem drug users frequently report suffering from other stigmas: being black, female, Hepatitis C or HIV positive, disabled, or suffering from a mental disorder. However, research shows that problem drug user status is the most stigmatising.” The stigma is continuously cemented in place by rhetoric about the “war on drugs.” There is no comparable public war on disability, or mental illness, or ethnicity—at least not overtly.

I cannot vouch for Lloyd’s analysis, but a good deal of it smacks of common sense at the street level. Others have suggested it is logical to assume that the stigma attached to hard drug addiction serves, by example, to deter others. “However,” Lloyd writes, “attempts to scare young people away from drug use have not proved effective. The evidence reviewed here suggests that stigma keeps users away from treatment.”

So this is not a theoretical concern. Stigmatization “may be a major stumbling block to successful rehabilitation.” Health professionals and hospital staff “can be distrustful and judgmental in dealing with problem drug users but drug users can themselves be aggressive and manipulative. In the United States staff who choose to work in hospitals serving the most deprived, inner-city populations appear to be more compassionate and patient.”

The prevailing public view, Lloyd writes, is that problem drug users tend to be “dangerous, deceitful, unreliable, unpredictable, hard to talk with and to blame for their predicament. Young people may have more negative views in this respect than adults.”

Of course, drug addicts can be all those things at one time or another. Drug abusers often stigmatize themselves. For the user, these conflicted feelings lead some of them to feel that “the very act of seeking treatment serves to cement an ‘addict’ or ‘junkie’ identity, which can lead to further rejection from family and friends.” This is most commonly experienced by users on methadone maintenance treatment, “who feel particularly stigmatised, in comparison to other treatment types.” Lloyd notes that a lifetime stigma sometimes attaches to heroin and cocaine addiction, continuing “to haunt such ex-users, preventing access to good housing and employment.” As he trenchantly observes, there is plenty of room “to stigmatise users less, without rendering heroin or crack-cocaine significantly more attractive.”

Lloyd concludes that the primary culprit, the complicating factor, is “blame.” Compared to “blameless groups” such as the disabled and the mentally ill, problem drug users, he writes, “are blamed for taking drugs in the first place and are also perceived to have a choice whether or not to take drugs in the future.”

If public and professional stigma has the power to prevent addicts from entering treatment (as it formerly held a similar power over the mentally ill, and before that, the disabled), what can be done about it? Lloyd makes several concrete suggestions, most of which center, predictably, on education:

--Drug education in schools should focus on the causes and the consequences of active addiction, rather than relying on scare stories.

--It’s time to teach health care and pharmacy staff about the medical, social, and psychological aspects of drug addiction.

--Treatment agencies need to focus on the whole person, “and not see problem drug users as solely problem drug users. Some drug addicts are also bird-watchers.”

--Users themselves, as well as their families, often benefit from a greater understanding of the mechanisms of addiction. This can have the effect of reducing “the self-blame felt by many drug user’s parents.”

--Finally, “police need to reflect on their practice in policing problem drug users at street level.” ‘Nuff said on that.

DrugScope, a leading U.K. charity with a membership drawn in part from the ranks of drug treatment and education workers, praised the report as “timely and insightful.” Martin Barnes, chief executive of DrugScope, said that the report effectively “evidences stigma as a barrier to recovery and reintegration.”


Beth said...

This was a very interesting read. I think it's important for people to be taught the facts about drug addictions, not just told "scare stories" as is mentioned in your post. Rather than being warned about the consequences, people need to understand the causes of drug addiction, and how to avoid them.

Stephen said...

Thank you so much for sharing this post. It's very informative and useful to every to be aware medications that can cause addiction if it's uncontrolled.

Debbie said...

Outstanding article. Addicts should not be sterio-typed. Every addict is unique, the same way all individuals are. There is obviously "something" in their brain they are lacking to make them want to self-medicate to feel "normal". A herion addict is very different than a meth addict. If a meth addict was prescribed adderal for instance, would they have still become addicted to meth? Probably not. They would not be considered a "addict" if they were to have a prescription. I very much agree that that people need to reevaluate the way addiction is viewed.

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