Mental health problems affect everyone, but carry enormous stigma. And addictions carry the greatest stigma of all. Why? Because we still haven't let go of the idea that people with addictions are really just lacking will power, and could get over it if they wanted to.
To some extent, this is true, but it is also true of every other mental health problem out there. Self determination plays an important role in minimizing the negative effects of everything from depression to psychosis, yet for people with addictions, many see the addiction as simply a problem of character.
This singling out of addictions pervades every element of society, from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which still doesn't recognize addictions as a unified set of disorders, to physicians who discriminate against people with addictions, to our politicians, who allow mass homelessness of people with addictions, and underfunding of essential treatment services, to regular citizens who resent the tiniest percentage of their tax dollars going towards helping people with addictions -- despite the fact that it could happen to them one day.
Ignoring the fact that many people with addictions suffered from childhood abuse and neglect, leading to a damaged self concept which undermines the ability to succeed in today's competitive world, or to have a healthy relationship in adulthood, and the fact that those with addictions are at much higher risk of death by overdose, disease or suicide, addicts have become the new scapegoats of our society.
Yet people with other mental health problems are much more likely to develop addictions, or to use alcohol or drugs. So unless we start treating people with addiction with the compassion they deserve, every other mental health problem is going to get worse -- from depression overshadowing the lives of people with alcohol problems and internet addicts, to teens experimenting with marijuana being triggered into psychosis, to women starving themselves to appear thin, and getting hooked on meth or cocaine or exercise to assist in weight loss, while an alarming number of Americans are overeating to the point of obesity and health problems, sugar-addicted kids becoming violent in adulthood, and shopping and gambling addicts plunge into crippling debt.
And let's not forget the mass media's favourite celebrity mockery, the sex addict. But sex addiction is not a joke -- it destroys marriages and families, and can lead to increased risk of unplanned pregnancy, rape, assault, robbery and the transmission of HIV and other STDs.
So what's the answer? Recognize that addiction is a real social problem, not a joke, and that it can happen to anyone at a vulnerable time. Recognize that addicts have the deck stacked against them, and are more likely to fail in every area of their life. And start funding effective, evidence-based services to every addict who needs it -- including help with housing and relationships.
Most importantly, recognize that we will never achieve a mentally healthy society while we continue to blame people with addictions for their problems.
This blog is part of a Mental Health Month Blog Party to educate the public about mental health, decrease stigma about mental illness, and discuss strategies for making lasting lifestyle and behavior changes that promote overall health and wellness.