Addiction and substance abuse have become such common aspects of life today that we now sometimes see addicts in stereotypes. This fact takes most by surprise. It is generally thought that, for something to be stereotyped, there must be enough of it occurring for long enough to create this sort of prevalent idea that the negative trait is associated with a certain demographic, race, religion, ethnicity, locational background, employment position, etc. That is how stereotyping works. There are hundreds if not thousands of stereotypes in American culture, and though most are surprised to hear it, addiction has gotten so mainstream that there are now even addiction stereotypes.
Dr. John F. Kelly, director of the Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston speaks out about stereotyping addicts. He said that we need to work to change our current lexicon of addiction. He is a strong proponent of the belief system that we need to change the way we label addiction.
This is a highly controversial issue. Dr. Kelly and others like him believe that we must strip out this idea that addicts “abuse” drugs. The logic here is that calling them “abusers” suggests that such persons are voluntarily misusing substances rather than struggling with a severe disease that affects their brain chemistry and mental constitution. Dr. Kelly suggests that using such language suggests that people are knowingly and voluntarily engaging in such willful misconduct. This can foster the idea that such individuals should be punished instead of treated. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has also published journal studies on the subject of addiction and stereotyping, to a degree mirroring what Dr. Kelly had to say about the matter.
Of course, the opposing stance has some validity to it as well. It is hard for many to adopt the concept that addicts have a “disease” and are completely helpless to do anything about it without outside help. Believing this concept instantly robs people of their ability to analytically be in charge of their own lives. It makes people into victims and labels them to be at the whim of their own addictions. It totally removes any concept of individual strength or resilience. There are many who believe that addicts got themselves into the mess and that they should take responsibly for it and get themselves out of it.
In a lot of ways, people tend to overcomplicate this issue. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether or not addiction is viewed as a disease. It doesn’t really matter if addicts are treated from the concept that they are the victim of addiction or the cause of that addiction. The key is to find what works in actually treating the addiction.
There is little to no success that comes from stigmatizing addicts. The old, confrontational and punitive approaches to addiction treatment that we were used to in the mid-1900s are by and large no longer in use today. To treat an addict like a criminal does not get anyone anywhere. To treat an addict like a “bad” person or “evil” or “no good” does not do anything for anyone.
However, that does not mean that we should be overly sympathetic to addicts. It does not mean that we need to treat them like “Poor little victims who are powerless against their addiction” or that they have an “un-curable disease they must cope with oh the poor things.” These self-depreciating and patronizing approaches are not going to instill recovering addicts with the vim and vigor that they need to take control of their own lives and really fight back against addiction.
The moral of the story is to treat addicts with the dignity and respect that you would treat any other human being with. They are simply men and women just like the rest of us, only they have befallen a terrible affliction that they must now work very hard to overcome. They should not be punished or stereotyped, nor should they be patronized and pitied. We must focus on what works in our effort to help addicts. We must treat them with respect and compassion like normal human beings. We must not shirk away from the challenges that they, and we by association, must face together.