The mental health field has shown that it is possible to change how the media covers specific issues.

Perhaps the drug and alcohol sector needs to do some similar work, suggests Laurence Alvis,  CEO of the Moreland Hall Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment and Education Service in Melbourne.

***

Stigma is also a health hazard for people with alcohol and other drug problems

Laurence Alvis writes: 

Recent media coverage of alcohol and other drug issues has been cause for hope and despair.

We have watched in disbelief the general celebration of a 14 year-old boy returning positive blood and urine tests for cannabis as a great outcome for natural justice, while the usual stigmatisation of anyone else with a link to drug use continues unabated.

Alongside this, recent attention to beyondblue has, if nothing else, at least served to remind us of the transformation that has been achieved in public attitudes towards depression and anxiety when initiatives are well resourced and evidence based.

The apparent double standards for the ‘Bali teen’ and those people generally dismissed in media reports as ‘drug users’, ‘addicts’ or ‘junkies’ are disappointing but not surprising. 

Initial reporting on the Bali case focussed largely on the likelihood that the boy had been caught up in a local sting operation – cue moral outrage at the unfair treatment of a young Australian abroad and high profile political responses.

By the time the news of the positive tests came out, the public narrative had already been established and, what would ordinarily be seen as evidence of culpability was now presented as a key plank in the legal strategy to removing the boy from a potentially harmful situation (i.e. prison).

This is a remarkably different approach to that usually adopted when covering the misuse of alcohol or other drugs by other people.

Typically, this approach frames drug use (especially illicit drug use) as deviant behaviour (in spite of the fact that 80% of Australians regularly report having consumed alcohol – and 40% for other drugs – in their lifetime: AIHW, 2011) and those who are engaged in it as either lost souls or dangerously unstable.

At its best, such approaches promote hand-wringing and a sense that there is no hope for people who are drug dependent, or their families.  At its worst, it serves to further alienate and stigmatise people (and their families) who are already marginalised and vulnerable.

Two recent examples from Australian newspapers stand out.  They are not particularly egregious examples of our community’s tendencies to deal in broad stereotypes and to seek scapegoats for social ills.  Where they are disturbing is in the apparent ease with which they imply that people who are drug-dependent are somehow less human than the rest of us.

The first comes from a Herald Sun editorial (‘Councils exercise parking idiocy’, Oct 18), which uses the death of a person from a drug overdose as the pretext for a breezy introduction to a parking ticket story about a Melbourne retiree and his dog.  What is staggering about this piece is that it shows more concern for the welfare of the dog than for the life of someone whose life has been cut short.

The second example is from the Courier Mail (‘Brisbane doctor Stuart Reece attacked by patient’, Oct 17:), reporting on an assault on a Brisbane GP by one of his patients.  The doctor (who is an established figure in Queensland’s alcohol and other drug treatment sector) is quoted as saying that, ‘inside every drug addict there’s a beautiful person waiting to come out’, but the tenor of the article implies that his patients do not deserve his help.

The sort of entrenched attitudes towards people battling substance dependence that these (and countless other) articles convey represents a huge barrier to improving our capacity to prevent and reduce the harms related to alcohol and other drug misuse within our communities.

Their prevalence in much media reporting suggests the need for more initiatives like SANE’s Stigmawatch to draw greater attention to the problem.

The daily experience of stigmatisation reinforces the damage to people’s lives resulting from alcohol and other drug dependence.  It increases peoples’ social isolation and is a constant reminder of the gulf between where they are and where they would like to be.

Moreland Hall’s experience in working with people who are trying to overcome the effects of alcohol and other drug dependence shows that treating them with respect and dignity is a powerful catalyst for change, as evidenced by these comments from people on the impact of their participation in our services:

‘I feel normal now.  I don’t feel like an outcast.’

‘I didn’t have to pretend that I was anything that I wasn’t…I didn’t have my defensive walls up.  I didn’t have to lie about my life or where I lived or what my circumstances were, or had been.’

A new report by the Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users’ League (AIVL) further documents the impact of stigmatisation and discrimination experienced by people using illicit drugs.

AIVL’s research confirmed that, amongst the general public, they are seen as playing a positive social role: serving as a deterrent to others who might otherwise engage in drug use.  They are fed by misconceptions about the reasons people use alcohol and other drugs and a general lack of awareness about the recovery process.

The attending definition of anyone struggling with substance dependence as ‘other’ and therefore not deserving of consideration or basic human respect damages us all.  It denies the lived reality of alcohol and other drug dependence on a wide cross section of our society.

People who misuse alcohol and other drugs are just that: people.  They are not just strangers you would ignore if you saw them on the street.  They are (with no particular emphasis) doctors, bus drivers and QCs.  They are parents, siblings, friends, colleagues and, yes, even 14 year-old boys who can get caught up in events beyond their comprehension.

People make mistakes.  The consequences of alcohol and other drug dependence are significant and well documented.  But people are also capable of remarkable transformation if provided with the right conditions.

beyondblue has shown how focussed investment can improve community understanding of depression and anxiety, resulting in a significant reduction in the stigma associated with mental health and improved health outcomes for those directly affected.

We need to develop a similar public debate on alcohol and other drug use to create a healthy environment in which in which people (and their families) can seek the assistance they need to rebuild their lives without fear of stigmatisation or reprisals.

The AIVL report makes a number of worthwhile recommendations on how to challenge stigmatisation at state, national and international levels.

There has been some recent progress, but there is still a long way to go.  An increased focus on the health impacts of alcohol and cannabis in public discussion of these two substances appears to have contributed to general trends of reduction in their use over the last 10 years (AIHW, 2011).

The more we can adopt a public health approach to alcohol and other drug use, the more effective we will be in minimising its impacts on individuals, families and the broader community.

References

AIHW (2011) 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey report. Drug statistics series no. 25. Cat. no. PHE 145. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 20 October 2011 <http://www.aihw.gov.au/publication-detail/?id=32212254712>.

Minkoff, K. & Cline, C. (2004), Changing the world: The design and implementation of comprehensive continuous integrated systems of care for individuals with co-occurring disorders, Psychiatric Clinics of North America 27(4) pp.727–43.

UnitingCare Moreland Hall is the lead Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD) treatment and education agency of UnitingCare Victoria & Tasmania. Moreland Hall has been operating since 1970 and provides a range of treatment and education services, including withdrawal and rehabilitation programs, counselling and support in the community and at Port Phillip prison, professional development, drug diversion programs, supported accommodation and youth and family programs. The agency’s Catalyst alcohol community rehabilitation program was the winner of the 2011 National Drug & Alcohol Award for Excellence in Treatment & Support.

You can follow Moreland Hall on Twitter.

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