PITTSFIELD — "Junkie," "alcoholic," "crackhead."
These are only a few of the derogatory labels applied to the millions of Americans who are dependent upon drugs or alcohol. They are words that define addicted people as weak-willed or as having a character flaw worthy of punishment or even jail time.
The reality, however, is the majority of people with substance use disorders are just like everyone else. They are parents, children, friends, colleagues, sisters and brothers. An addiction does not discriminate between rich and poor, young or old.
But words matter.
Substance use disorders remain the most stigmatized of all social and health problems and is one of main reasons people with addiction do not seek treatment, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA).
In fact, a 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 21.5 million Americans suffered from addiction in the previous year but only 2.5 million sought and received the specialized treatment they needed.
During the same time period, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that 29.1 million people were diagnosed with diabetes. It would be unfathomable for a diabetes patient not to seek treatment for their disease out of shame or fear. It's appalling that the disease of addiction which afflicts almost as many people as diabetes still carries such a stigma that people prefer to either deny or hide it at their own peril.
Substance use disorders, just like diabetes or even high blood pressure are treatable, often preventable health issues. No one expects someone with a chronic disease like diabetes to stay in the hospital for 30 days and come out cured. Yet historically, that's how we've treated people with the chronic disease of addiction.
Addiction is a disease of the brain influenced by a complex set of behaviors that may be the result of genetic, biological, social, and environmental interactions. Prolonged use of drugs and alcohol can disrupt and alter a person's neural or brain function.
Everyone is vulnerable
The stereotype that addicted people could change their behavior if only they were motivated enough or cared more fails to acknowledge these complex components underlying the disease. And when public policymakers view addiction as untreatable or unworthy of support, treatment programs, insurance coverage, and research programs go underfunded or are eradicated all together.
Becoming dependent on drugs or alcohol can happen to anyone. People who are trying to fight their illness need as much support and care as possible in order to give them strength to recover.
September is National Recovery Month. As a society, we need to work together to combat the stigma of addiction for our family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. This will require, first and foremost, education on the mechanics of the disease.
Educational efforts should provide raw data on how drugs that affect certain brain functions are not inherently "good" or "bad" but actually lead to fundamental changes in neural behaviors when used inappropriately or over a long period of time. School and community-based education programs should be introduced as early as elementary school to equip children with the tools to navigate adolescence while avoiding drugs and alcohol and, yet, there is little to no funding supporting these types of programs like the Brien Center's Patrick Miller Youth Substance Abuse Education, Prevention and Treatment Program.
In addition, in our communities we need to engage the brave voices of recovered people and their families to help destigmatize addiction, educate and advocate for better prevention and treatment programs.
Finally, with tolerance and understanding, a person suffering from this disease will no longer be ashamed to seek the help they need. They can find hope in recovery and lead healthy, substance-free lives.
Christine Macbeth is CEO of the Brien Center for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services