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Addiction has long been known to be associated with mental illness. Many people with mental health problems self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, or turn to them so as to forget the negative feelings they have. I have written about this topic in a couple of different ways before, exploring the links between other “coping mechanisms” (used in the broadest of ways) such as self-injury, overexercising, and eating disorders.

Addiction is in the DSM. It is classified as a mental health problem, and as such I think that we should try and treat addicts with the same respect we should treat people with any other mental illness. There are many people out there who talk about fighting the stigma of mental illness, and there are institutions that try and support people with mental illness, but when it comes down to addiction people get angry and blame the addict.

So I am going to use this blog to tell a little story about two friends of mine from college. A story that illustrates the differences in treatment that people receive if they have a “real” mental illness (like depression) versus if they are “an addict”.

Friend 1 had a history of depression and an eating disorder. Half way through college her mental health started to decline so she choose to take a medical leave of absence. She went to the dean and explained the situation and was told to take the semester off and come back when she could. When she choose to come back the school was supportive, she was checked in on by the deans, and offered help at the counseling center. When she started having problems again the school let her take a little more time off. All in all she was treated very well, and I must give the school credit for how well it deals with this sort of situation (this is just one example, I know numerous people who took time off for mental health problems).

Friend 2 developed a bad drug problem while at school and needed help. He asked his parents for help and they helped get him into a rehab. He talked to the deans and they gave him a medical leave of absence. All the same so far. Well, when he tried to come back to school after a semester and a summer off he was told he would have to prove himself capable of being in the school again without drugs. He had to see a psychiatrist every week and take weekly urine tests that the school could ask for to prove he wasn’t using again. He had to take classes out of school to prove he could “do it”. So he did, and with a fight (academic advising said they didn’t think he should come back) he was finally allowed back, a full year after leaving. After coming back to school he did not receive the best of treatment from any of the higher ups at the school. The biggest example I can think of was a professor losing his grade (after the end of the semester), the professor explained he had lost the grade book and all the classwork, and my friend had no copies due to his hard drive having crashed a month earlier. How should this situation be resolved? I’m not sure, but I am certain it shouldn’t be resolved with an F, and the dean of academics telling my friend that “it was good for him” to fail. This was a small class, with a teaching assistant and group work, there were any number of ways the professor could have worked around this. This sort of attitude from the deans of “you deserve to fail” was consistent throughout the rest of his time at the school. Any time there was a problem it was automatically his fault. There were no second chances. All through this, it must be noted, he continued to get weekly urine tests to prove he wasn’t using.

Why am I telling these stories? For a number of reasons. Firstly, they frustrate me immensely. Both of my friends had a mental illness. Both had depression and it manifested in different ways. They both chose by themselves to ask for help. The differences in how they were treated are astounding.

The main thing that I got out of it was this message: if you are struggling with drugs, tell no one. You will be permanently stigmatized in a way you can never hide from. This problem is much like the problem many people have with mental illness; however, we are developing laws to prevent discrimination on this level, and having awareness days and weeks. For addiction, despite it being a mental health problem, many people seem to think it’s okay to still stigmatize and discriminate against. It’s not.

How do you expect anyone to ask for help if they will only be punished for it?



Edit to add this article, which displays the severe, and life-altering problems that oocur from a disjunct between mental health services and addiction services.