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Tackling the stigmatisation of alcohol addiction

ByPaul Clarke

Mar 4, 2016

Those who suffer from addiction are often stigmatised by society because of their illness. This stigmatisation of addiction affects addicts both young and old, including students. Worse still, this stigma often prevents addicts from seeking out treatment for their addiction. However, society has slowly progressed over the last two decades as more and more people come to view addiction less as a moral failing and more as a disease.

The world’s foremost authority on addiction, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, classifies addiction as a ‘chronic brain disease’. This ‘disease paradigm’ of addiction is widely accepted by academics all over the world. But progress is still very much in its infancy. It takes time to change long held beliefs, and negative beliefs towards addiction are no exception to this rule.

Only recently, the US drug czar Michael Botticelli said publicly that we must try to change the language that’s used to categorise addiction if this stigma is be truly removed. He uses the example of the term ‘junkie’ to prove his point. The word was used to describe heroin users in the first half of the nineteenth century, arising because many heroin users collected pieces of scrap metal to pawn. The ‘proceeds’ of the sale would then fund the user’s heroin addiction. Nowadays, the term ‘junkie’ is used as a generic negative or disparaging remark aimed towards drug users of all varieties. Even the word ‘addict’ is viewed with heavy negative connotations: Dr. Kevin P. Hill of McLean Hospital tells us that “people addicted to drugs are many more things than simply addicts. They are mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, friends.”

The stigma attached to addiction can therefore result in a situation where sufferers delay seeking out treatment, and often all hope of a solution is lost. Many addicts refuse to seek treatment for their addiction because they do not want to be labelled a ‘junkie’ or ‘abuser’. They may also reason that seeking out treatment brings shame on themselves and on their families. This attitude is deeply rooted in the old-fashioned notion that addiction is due to moral failings of the individual.

When it comes to students, some may feel weak for seeking out treatment because of the already existing ‘drink culture’ at their college or university. Students in particular may even feel that seeking help for their addiction somehow criminalises their reputation and hurts their ability to seek out future employment. Fortunately, there are now calls from politicians to liberalise or even decriminalise the use of drugs. Many countries have already taken huge strides towards the decriminalisation of drugs intended for ‘personal use’.

When it comes to treatment, the notion that addiction reflects moral or spiritual failings on your own behalf must be resisted. Addiction charities like to say that treatment is not about ‘bad people become good’, but about ‘ill people getting better’. The first step to be taken is recognising your addiction and coming to terms with the fact that help is needed. The signs of addiction depend upon the substance in question: many substances such as alcohol will cause users to suffer from physical ‘withdrawal symptoms’, such as shaking hands, hallucinations and even a seizure. Addiction to drugs such as cocaine and cannabis do not precipitate any physical withdrawal symptoms, because the addiction is said to be ‘perceived’ or ‘psychological’ in nature.

Treatment options are either residential or ‘outpatient’ in nature. Residential centres requires you to live within a rehabilitation centre for treatment, the duration of which depends on the substance which has been abused. Users addicted to drugs such as alcohol or cocaine may be able to complete their treatment in as little as seven to ten days. In contrast, detox from opiates such as heroin or methadone will require up to four weeks to complete. This is because opiate withdrawal symptoms take far longer to treat compared to withdrawal symptoms from alcohol or cocaine.

Detox allows enough time for physical withdrawal symptoms to be treated. Following detoxification, treatment shifts to address the psychological aspects of addiction. Modern therapy techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy and psychotherapy are utilised to treat depression, anxiety and other mental ‘triggers’ of addiction. Many residential rehab centres now also employ ‘holistic’ therapies. These therapies are typically ancient stress-management and ‘feel good’ techniques such as yoga, mindfulness, acupuncture and reiki.

‘Outpatient’ treatment is treatment received for addiction during the day. The patient returns home to the so-called ‘using environment’ once treatment sessions conclude. This outpatient treatment is most effective when it follows residential treatment. However, for many addictions where withdrawal symptoms require a medically assisted detox, outpatient treatment is not recommendable. This is because the patient is not removed from the ‘using environment’ when the ‘acute’ withdrawal symptoms arise. This means ‘relapse’ is likely during a home or outpatient detox.

If you suspect you suffer from addiction, we urge you to seek help. The first step typically involves reaching out to your local GP, or perhaps your local drug and alcohol action team. Free treatment for addiction on the NHS has unfortunately been vastly scaled back in recent years. For a physical detoxification, it could mean a wait of up to twelve months on a waiting list. Tragically, many addicts have died whilst waiting for treatment through the NHS. However, outpatient and residential treatment options do exist through charities such as Phoenix Futures and Turning Point.

The third option is to self-fund your treatment via a private residential rehab provider. These rehabs typically charge anywhere between £2000 and £4000 for a two-week ‘detox’ programme. A six-week ‘rehabilitation programme’ typically starts at around £4000 and can be as much as £18,000. The price of treatment generally reflects the quality of the treatment on offer. Cheaper rehab centres may require you to share a bedroom with up to ten other patients, which may be off-putting or even detrimental to some. Pricier rehabs typically provide en-suite facilities and employ world-class counselling and therapy talent.

Lastly, one must not forget the good work being done through organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and SMART Recovery. These organisations are aimed at helping former addicts remain ‘in recovery’, although I would not recommend these organisations to people who currently remain in the grip of their addiction. Alcohol and drug addiction amongst students is often eclipsed by other, wider issues, but it should never be ignored, and the options for dealing with it should be made clear.

This post was originally written at http://www.rehab4addiction.co.uk/

Image: Pixabay

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