Recently, I head people arguing whether a substance use disorder is a disease or not. I wanted to respond, but those arguing it was not a disease were so adamant I knew this was an argument I would not win. I find it hard to believe there are people who believe a substance user disorder is not a disease, but a ‘moral failing’, and that people choose that lifestyle because they are weak and can’t control themselves.
A substance use disorder IS a disease, NOT a moral failing. Substance Users are not weak. They are people like everyone else. They have families, jobs, and could be our neighbor or friend.
I believe the reason people feel a substance use disorder is not a disease is the STIGMA attached to people struggling with it. Stigma is a major barrier a substance user needs to overcome to receive help. They don’t want their employers to find out they are going into treatment for fear of losing their jobs. They are reluctant to share their use with their family due to the shame it might bring them.
We need to do more to end the stigma that surround people with a substance user disorder. We need to take down barriers so all who wish will seek recovery and lifesaving treatment. Their families need to find recovery as well. Substance Use IS a family disease, and all are impacted by the insanity that occurs with the substance user’s behaviors.
There are a few things we can do to end the stigma:
1. Reach out, let families know they are not alone. Others have been through this before. There is no shame admitting your family member is actively using or is in recovery. Families in this crisis feel isolated and ashamed. Parents feel they have failed, and have tremendous guilt and shame. This is a family disease, everyone is affected, and there are resources they can use as well.
2. Support treatment programs, either financially, with material donations, or your time and expertise.
3. Be an advocate for people fighting the disease. They need our support, and taking down barriers will increase their chance of successful recovery.
4. Help your community see that substance use is everywhere. Local papers are quick to publish the latest DUI, but overdoses or people entering treatment are not newsworthy. Substance use does not care about race, religion or socioeconomic status. Overdoses occur under the radar, and we need to educate the doubters so they see this is a serious public health issue.
Ending the stigma about substance use and recovery will not be easy. The more we talk about it, educate and spend time with community outreach, the more people will see that this is a health issue that affects everyone in the community. Lessening the stigma will allow individuals and families suffering from this disease to find the help they need, and see that true recovery is not just a possibility, but a reality.