This is a topic that is important to me because I believe it underlines some key contradictions in our legal and mental health systems — ones that need to be changed so as to better help people with mental health problems.
This blog is also loosely based on a 20 page (never completed) paper I wrote, which contains all the relevant sources to the information and facts that I am claiming to be true. If you have any interest in the specific statistics let me know and I can send you the paper draft or the bibliography I had.
Addiction is defined as “the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance, thing, or activity”. Most commonly we use the term to refer to drug addiction. More recently we are coming to accept the existence of other addictions: sex, gambling, and even internet addiction. While public perception is slowly starting to change, a person who suffers from addiction is often seen as weak. Someone who gave in to drugs (or “other”) and ignored everything around them. Addicts are often viewed as selfish, bad people, who made bad decisions; now they must live with the consequences, whether those be jail time, homelessness, or a record so bad they can’t get a good job.
I don’t know if addiction is a choice. There is much evidence out there supporting both sides of the argument. I am comfortable saying it is not a choice a person consciously makes (this seems unlikely: ah, yes, I’m going to go and get addicted to heroin today). People don’t think like that. People think it won’t happen to them, and for a lot of people it doesn’t (yes, you can try drugs and not get addicted to them). But some people are not that lucky. They become addicts, and for the rest of their lives they are addicts. Piranhas in society: bad, weak people.
What about a person who suffers from depression and self-harms, or someone with an eating disorder, or even OCD? These people suffer from an addiction as well. A person who self-harms can become addicted to the feeling of hurting themselves; a person with an eating disorder can become addicted to the “high” they feel from not eating; and even OCD contains repetitive behaviors that a person needs to act upon. In a similar way that a person who is bulimic needs to throw up, and a cutter needs to cut after a bad day. This is the same way in which the addict needs to use. There is evidence to support the fact that the same areas of the brain light up and the same chemicals are released in all these disorders (again, I have details, but most people won’t read them so I am not going to explain them here. Let me know if you want them). All of these are forms of addiction. Some of these addictions require a substance be ingested, and others require a behavior that causes the brain to release similar chemicals. The mental cravings in all cases have a lot in common.
So the question I have is: why are the people who self harm, the people with eating disorders, and OCD viewed as unwilling sufferers of a mental illness while the people who use drugs–the addicts–are viewed as weak people who chose to make bad choices?
If a person is found to be self-harming or starving or purging they are sent to therapy. Someone takes care of them, and people want to try and solve and fix the problem. However, if a person is caught using drugs they are usually punished: sent to prison, maybe a rehab where they detox for a couple of weeks and are then sent home. What I want to know is why such a difference in treatment? Maybe if we started treating drug addiction the same way we treat self-harm and eating disorders we would have better success. Maybe those who are addicted to drugs would be more willing to ask for help if they knew they would be treated as a person with a mental illness as opposed to “an addict”. Drug addiction is a form of self-harm, and should be treated as such.
I know I am making some generalizations in this argument, but the overall meaning doesn’t change, and the generalizations are made because in the majority of cases they are true. Let’s start treating drug addicts like anyone else with a mental problem; let’s treat the problem in a similar way as we would a person with an eating disorder or who self harmed.