As Ohio and many other states continue to grapple with the growing epidemic of opioid dependence, deeply graphic accounts of victims’ battles have entered the news stream. Stories of agonizing loss have emerged in an unconventional and detrimental manner. Vulnerable people have been publicly displayed and shamed under the guise of “public good.” These pictures, and, more recently, videos, reflect the troubling reality of drug addiction, but fall short of their objective. In doing so, they cause more harm to the people they claim to care about.
No other medical condition would be utilized in such a humiliating and visibly disturbing way. It speaks to the level of stigma-driven disinterest, even perverse fascination, given to people with drug problems and with mental illnesses.
Sufferers of drug addiction face the burden of stigma on two levels. Much of the stigmatization comes from a failure to acknowledge the scientific roots of drug dependency. Chemical addiction alters the functioning of the brain, distorting the thinking of affected individuals, much like other mental disorders. Behavior resulting from altered judgment is unfairly attributed to a selfish personality.
Integrated into the stigma of drug dependence, mental health prejudices accentuate existing social and economic seclusion. The stigmatized image of individuals with mental illnesses as weak feeds into the presumption that victims of drug addiction are uncontrollable narcissists.
Stigma pushes individuals into the shadows and away from care. Mental illness affects 1 in 5 individuals throughout the United States, with suicide being the 10th-leading cause of death. Still though, lives lost to addiction are dismissed as the result of lack of self-control.
Not only does the response disrespect the victim and minimize mental illness, its logic of prevention is completely baseless. I am no less likely to use heroin because I saw two individuals suffering from drug addiction. The nearsighted assumption that scare tactics and public shaming translate into lower rates of drug use emphasizes change in mentality needs to occur.
We should promote scientifically-supported initiatives that give victims of substance dependence visibility. Let’s move toward a society that treats mentally ill individuals, especially people who use drugs, with dignity and inclusivity, instead of persecuting the most vulnerable and abandoned. Drug addiction is a health problem; we should present solutions that address it as such.
One program that does just that is Safe Point. Safe Point, started earlier this year, uses empathy and scientifically proven methods to tackle drug addiction. In presenting participants with the necessary tools to combat drug addiction and start the road to recovery, the initiative empowers individuals to take control of their health in a nonjudgmental and compassionate environment.
To find more information on Safe Point, visit safepointohio.org.
Fourth-year in Public Health and Spanish
Safe Point volunteer