Addiction and substance abuse are some of the most stigmatized social issues plaguing our country. Individuals facing the deleterious effects of substance abuse disorders and addiction are often enveloped in paralyzing shame about their situation.
We degrade those who “can’t control their habits.”
We shame the moral failings of substance abuse.
We stigmatize mental health illness, discouraging people from seeking the treatment they need.
But, addiction is just not that simple.
The deep complexities of addiction and substance abuse include various environmental, developmental, and genetic factors that influence an individual’s predisposition to the disease. Addiction is also closely and negatively associated with poverty and mental illness. In fact, it is nearly impossible to effectively address poverty, mental health, or addiction in isolation.
Why? Those suffering from addiction and substance abuse disorders are more likely to face financial struggles connected to unemployment and lack of education, which contribute to poverty. Lower education and employment levels correlate to high drug and alcohol use. Mental illness highly co-occurs with substance abuse and addiction. And, low-income communities see higher rates of mental illness than high-income communities. At the same time, stressors of poverty increase the susceptibility of an individual to addiction, mental illness, and lower rates of recovery.
The cycle continues.
As the recent Surgeon General’s report acknowledged, the crisis of addiction and substance abuse is growing at an alarming rate. Addressing the crisis effectively requires comprehensive solutions that consider poverty, mental illness, and addiction from a deep community level. But, without confronting the strong stigma around mental health and substance abuse, we have little chance of moving the needle on addiction as a country.
Four Common Misconceptions About Addiction
To develop effective solutions to addiction and substance abuse in any community, we must grasp a better understanding of the complexities facing anyone who struggles with addiction. Debunking these common misconceptions is vital to creating a compassionate community-based approach.
- Addiction is a choice. Yes and no. An individual makes a conscious decision to start using drugs the first time (unless they’ve been drugged without consent). The disease of addiction, however, results in measurable changes in brain function that alter an individual’s ability to control impulses, prioritize needs, and break habits. Drug use is a choice; addiction is a disease.
- If you were stronger, you could quit. “Just say no. Just stop using.” There’s a common misconception that addiction is the result of laziness — a lack of hard work and the inability to just say no to harmful things. Relapse rates are so high because the disease of addiction is so perverse. And, every person’s susceptibility to addiction is different, influenced by genetics, environment, development, personality, and psychology. Considering the complex interaction of various factors — the combination of many which severely disadvantage someone from preventing or breaking addiction — it’s rarely, if ever, as simple as saying no.
- Addiction is a moral issue. Blaming a disease on one’s moral failure viciously fuels the already crippling shame around one’s struggle with substance abuse. Given the several various contributing factors — most of which are environmental and outside one’s control — morals have little to do with one’s ability to break an addiction.
- Addiction doesn’t discriminate. No demographic is immune to addiction and substance abuse. But, the factors that predispose someone to addiction and substance abuse are more prevalent in lower economic areas. These include abuse, neglect, mental illness, lack of education, violence, and crime. The fact is, even given genetic factors, rates of addiction are substantially higher in low-income communities. If people from all economic statuses face similar genetic factors, environment plays a major role in predisposing one to substance use and addiction.
These misconceptions and more stand in the way of understanding the battle of addiction and the most effective treatments. In this hyper-divided environment, bringing unity to our cities and communities requires us to lean into these misconceptions and address where our prejudices play an unhealthy role. Addiction affects people from all demographics all over the world — not just the poor. However, in our efforts to help people break the cycle of poverty, addressing addiction is a critical step.
Addiction and trauma – one of the five factors perpetuating cyclical poverty – will be the focus of several upcoming blogs. Check back to learn more.