Today’s post is a long one, but bear with me. I have been doing a Substance Misuse module at university, and it has had me thinking about how different societies view different substances and addictions and what needs to be changed.
What I and millions of other people will see and hear about addicts everyday are the stereotypes that all addicts are of low income backgrounds, homeless, jobless and “in the pub all day getting drunk”, this could not be further from the truth! The blame for these stereotypes could largely go to the media and the way they talk about addiction and the people they choose to write their stories around. Will the well to do banker who manages wonderfully with both family and work life whilst being a cocaine addict, but struggles when randomised drug tests are introduced and he loses his job be written about? Or is it those who live in the poorer parts of society? Those who lack stable, middle-class jobs.
In 1995, Leah Betts died whilst at a rave after trying ecstasy for the first time. The papers turned this into a huge ‘One Pill Kills’ story. They did not however, publish (until much later) how it was not the ecstasy that killed her, but rather water. She, like many others believed that when you take substances like ecstasy you can become dehydrated and need to drink plenty of water, Leah drank around 7 litres of water within a 90 minute period, this is one of the worse things a person can do when taking a substance like this. When you are intoxicated your body does not always understand when it has had too much to drink and you keep going, when this happens you can drown or it can cause water intoxication leading to brain damage. It was not the drug that killed her, it was a lack of education around substance use.
Rather than go on to educate young people, the media used scare tactics to deter people away from drugs, but did that work? Are people still taking ecstasy? Yes they are, and the majority of them probably don’t know about drinking too much water, I know that myself and most of my classmates didn’t. While I am not pro drugs, surely as a society we should learn from stories like this and work to educate children and young people rather than simply trying to scare them? In schools, simply giving them one lesson every other year about different types of drugs in PSHE is most definitely not the answer (In the U.K. that is Personal, Social and Health Education for those of you who don’t know, they teach young people about drugs, safe sex, dangerous driving etc.).
So what makes a person go from taking one pill at a party, smoking one joint with friends and having a couple of drinks every now again, into an addict? What defines an addict? Psychology today (2017) defines addiction as something that ‘becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary responsibilities and concerns, such as work, relationships, or health’. However, Professor Peter Cohen says that rather than addiction we should call it bonding. As humans, we need to bond and connect, “when we’re happy and healthy, we’ll bond and connect with each other, but if you can’t do that, because you’re traumatized or beaten down by life, you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief” (Hari, j., 2015).
In fact, many stories from recovering addicts about how and when they became an addict tell us something that many of us never think about. While each of their experiences are very different many have one thing in common, they do not remember when or how they became dependant on substances.
In 2014 78,000 people died smoking related deaths in the UK, while there was approximately 2,479 deaths related to illegal substances in England and Wales. So why are these illegal drugs considered to be worse by society when they kill a substantial amount less than the cigarettes bought over the counter. Is it because the tobacco industry is too profitable for the governments, so much so that they don’t want to reduce the amount sold, or give it the same treatment as the drugs that are illegal?
I do not smoke and only drink on special occasions, but many of my friends smoke and drink regularly, and I have had friends who have been to the hospital for stomach pumping procedures when we were in school and sixth form. Alcohol, like cigarettes, is so easily accessible that so many underage people are drinking on the weekends with friends. I used to know people who would go to clubs on a Friday night after school when we were 15 because they were either not asked for ID or because they looked so much older. They were NOT however, buying drugs like cocaine because the majority of young people probably have no idea where to even look for that, I know I certainly didn’t and still don’t. With two younger sisters, aged 12 and 14, the fact that education and the media are STILL lacking in useful information to provide school children of this age is shocking.
Johann Hari did a great talk for ‘TED TALK’ in 2015 called ‘Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong’. He talked about how it affected him personally and the strategy used by Portugal, in what many people think of as “the war on drugs”. He talked about how one of his family members was a substance user, how this affected him and how it made him want to understand more about what can be done to help those affected by substance use. He goes on to talk about a man called Dr. João Goulão in Portugal who led a panel of scientists and doctors to figure out a solution to the countries massive drug problem. In 2000, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe, so the panel suggested that they “Decriminalize all drugs from cannabis to crack, but take all the money we used to spend on cutting addicts off, on disconnecting them, and spend it instead on reconnecting them with society”. They created and found jobs, and helped addicts to set up small businesses. 15 years on and injecting drug use was down by 50% and addiction as a whole is down significantly with nobody wanting to go back to the old system.
So why, if this approach is so successful are more countries not following suit? And what can we do as a society to influence the media’s approach into education rather than stigmatisation?
Originally posted on My Trending Stories
(If you get a chance I highly recommend watching Johan’s talk).