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Changing The Perception of Addiction: It’s Not A Moral Failure

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There is a common misconception that addiction is not a disease. Many of those who do not understand its effects believe addicts suffer from a moral failure. A new study conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health revealed how rampant those misconceptions run across America, and shed light on the societal threats that accompany them as side effects.

Moral Failure Vs. Disease

The Results of the Johns Hopkins Study

Between October 30 and December 2, 2013, Colleen L. Barry, an associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, set out to examine the public perception of people struggling with addiction compared to those with mental illness. Barry and her colleagues surveyed 709 people from across the country, asking them in-depth questions related to stigma, discrimination, treatment and public policy associated with each disease. The results revealed not only that the majority of people foster more negative opinions about people with drug addiction than people with mental illness, but that people stand in much greater opposition to public policies that would help addicts achieve sobriety. In fact, most of them (roughly seven out of 10) didn’t even believe recovery from addiction was attainable.

As the questioning dug deeper, the study revealed that these predispositions against drug addicts were much more than harmless opinions; they were beliefs that held a devastating potential for discrimination. Of the 709 people surveyed, fewer than 25% said they would be willing to work closely with a person dealing with addiction, while more than 60% were willing to work with someone with mental illness. Many respondents took those feelings one step further, with more than 60% saying that employers should be able to deny employment to people with a drug addiction, compared to 25% who felt that way about mental illness.

Outside of the workplace, popular opinion remained consistent. Nearly half of the respondents were opposed to giving addicts health insurance benefits equivalent to the general population, while only 21% opposed extending those benefits to the mentally ill.

The Inherent Risks of an Uneducated Public

The views expressed in the Johns Hopkins study are hardly new, and that’s precisely the problem. Over the years, tremendous progress has been made in understanding the physiological severity of addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse describes addiction as “a chronic, often relapsing brain disease.” Although NIDA acknowledges that many addicts originally tried drugs or alcohol voluntarily, that does not change the fact that physiological changes take place within the brain that challenge an addicted person’s self-control and erode their ability to resist urges to use – something many people still do not accept or understand.

“While drug addiction and mental illness are both chronic, treatable health conditions, the American public is more likely to think of addiction as a moral failing than a medical condition,” Barry said. And with that misunderstanding comes the troubling potential for a self-fulfilling prophecy. Employers refusing to hire people with a history of drug abuse and colleagues intentionally avoiding collaboration with them won’t help eradicate addiction; it will only perpetuate the negativity associated with the disease. Worse still, that association will continually be reinforced every time an insurance provider refuses to cover the costs of treatment.

It seems there is a subliminal message being sent that addicts are not suffering from a disease, but rather making a choice – which is both unfair and untrue. It is a message the authors of the Johns Hopkins study are hoping to mute. “The more shame associated with drug addiction, the less likely we as a community will be in a position to change attitudes and get people the help they need,” says, Beth McGinty, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and co-author of the study. “If you can educate the public that these are treatable conditions, we will see higher levels of support for policy changes that benefit people with mental illness and drug addiction.”

Getting Help
Regardless of public perception, the truth of the matter is that addiction is a disease and not a moral failure. It does not discriminate, and it does not subside on its own – but it can be overcome. If you or someone you love is suffering, get the help you deserve today. Call The Watershed at 1-800-861-1768.

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