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Stigma: Overdosing on heroin doesn’t make you a scumbag

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StigmaOn the day we heard that heroin was implicated in the tragic death of Peaches Geldof, I was reminded of another recent story. Thomas McLellan, a prominent US addiction researcher and policy advisor, lost his son to an overdose in 2008. A month or two back he wrote a piece  in the Huffington Post. He recounts that during a recent interview a journalist referred to the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman as ‘a weak piece of shit’. Says McLellan:

“Even as I sit here several days later, I am dumbstruck by the callousness, the audacity, and most of all, the ignorance of this comment.”

He goes on to say:

“Overdosing on heroin doesn’t make you a scumbag. Having a drink after 20 years of sobriety doesn’t make you weak. Having an addiction is not a moral choice. In fact, I think it is accurate to say that having an addiction is not a choice at all.”

He points to the research evidence around the disease of addiction and the effects on the parts of the brain governing judgement, inhibition, motivation and learning and points out that nobody has their first drink with the intention of going on to be an addict. He says:

“I wonder how the media or the public would have reacted if Mr. Hoffman had passed away as a result of another disease that he had been struggling against for 23 years? Say cancer? I think the young actor’s triumph over cancer likely would have been celebrated throughout his career as an example of his personal strength.”

He concludes:

“The science is… strong in the case of addictions and it is time that media and public perceptions about addiction catch up with the science about this disease. Until that happens, too many talented and extraordinary people will struggle in silence and die in the shadows of shame.”

His observations that some people look upon addiction as a moral or personal failure are sad, but accurate. This adds to stigma. Folk with addictions don’t need judgement or punishment to help them get better, they need hope, inspiration, access to good treatment, practical support and connections to other recovering people in the long term.

Overdosing does not make you a scumbag. Having an addiction does not make you a scumbag. Holding prejudices, applying stigma and judging others, now that’s another story…

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