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Time to deal with ‘junkies, alkies and smackheads’

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New-lifeA few years back, I complained to a newspaper over a headline referring to someone as a ‘junkie’. I said it was pejorative. The newspaper didn’t feel there was a case to answer. A friend wrote to the Press Complaints Commission who said the complainant had to be the person that the headline was about – effectively  someone already attacked and disempowered. It would have been easy to despair, but it takes time to change attitudes. That’s how we handled it then.

Years later are we doing any better?

There’s a great article by Edward Fox on the Talking Drugs website which suggests we’re not. Called ‘the UK’s shameful stigmatisation of heroin users, the article focuses on the media response to a harm reduction initiative to reduce the spread of blood borne viruses. In response to the announcement he use of the term ‘junkie’ was peppered around some of our newspapers.

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Why bother with this? What harm does it do? Fox explains:

Not only does this stigmatization quell any public empathy toward the issue, it is detrimental to people who use heroin problematically seeking treatment. In a 2012 report by the UK Drug Policy Commission[5](UKDPC) and the Society of Editors, titled Dealing with the Stigma of Drugs: A Guide for Journalists[6], it was noted how “negative connotations attached to the word ‘junkie’ made it more difficult to encourage addicts to join rehabilitation programmes.” Indeed, why would people who have been discriminated against so heavily by the mainstream media feel that they would receive fair judgement upon submitting themselves to treatment?

Why indeed? There is some hope for change though. The Sydney Morning Telegraph was censured by their press regulator following Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death for the headline ‘Kids grieve for junkie actor dad.’ Says Fox:

The headline was removed within an hour of publication, but the damage had been done, and on August 7, Australia’s Press Council ruled that their Standards of Practice had been breached by the article, deeming the use of the term “junkie” to be “highly unfair and offensive[7].” It’s sad that no such step seems likely to be taken in the UK.

Edward Fox reminded me of the frustration I felt a few months back. I wrote about it then and it still stings to read it back:

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.”

Stigmatisation is bullying, it is an attempt to disempower and it keeps people locked in active addiction. It simply sucks the hope away. Despite these dispiriting examples, I do have hope for the future and it is because the voices of people who have overcome addiction are growing stronger. Nowadays recovery has a face and a voice. Recovering people and those who support them aren’t putting up with this, not for themselves and not for those still struggling with addiction.

Writers like Fox highlight the issue. Bloggers blog, Tweeters tweet and FaceBookers post on how unacceptable it is. The more we do, the more stigma and prejudice is diminished. I would encourage those reading this far to click on the social media links and link to this blog, or better still to Edward Fox’s article and get the message out there. It’s well past time to ditch pejorative terms like ‘junkies, alkies and smackheads’.

    2 Responses to "Time to deal with ‘junkies, alkies and smackheads’"
    1. Kevinjacobs says:

      I help people with alcohol addiction. I refuse to use the words alcoholic or alcoholism for the same reason. Its hard enough for someone to admit they have a drink problem without demonising them with these derogatory terms. I also work in research and results of surveys that have been conducted on ” name two words you associate with an alcoholics” are quite shocking.

    2. Hi Kevin

      I’m a forty nine year old recovering alcoholic. I don’t find the term ‘alcoholic’ offensive but have the benefit of a rounded, first-hand understanding of what it means and what it doesn’t. Acceptance of the fact that I am an addict is more important than the label I choose to describe my relationship with alcohol. I now know who I am and no longer need validation from a third party.

      My default position on negative stereotyping is that it’s a fabulous showcase for the ignorance of the individual or organisation involved. That said, you make a good point; there’s a huge amount of stigma attached to addiction and those ‘not of this parish’ demonstrate little sensitivity or understanding. In the early days we lack the strength and experience to see that addiction is only part, not the whole of who we are and as history shows us, many societies are quick to demonise behaviour that dares to stray beyond the realms of ‘normal.’

      With sobriety comes the strength to be yourself and not be told where you do and don’t belong. But it’s easy to be wise a few years down the line and difficult at the beginning. Recovery is like a jigsaw puzzle – it’s impossible to find all the right pieces the first time we look for them.

      I’m writing a book which aims to help people honestly assess their relationship with alcohol and offers support, empathy and advice should they decide to stop drinking. It’s based on my own experience of what’s been helpful and unhelpful in recovery. It examines the difference between being ‘dry’ and being ‘sober’ and why that understanding is key. I used alcohol as a mood enhancer but mostly as an anaesthetic. It prolonged rare moments of happiness and numbed the many feelings I didn’t want to experience, ergo I was a greedy coward.

      I’ve been in recovery since 2001 and about ten years ago, at a dinner party, the man sitting next to me pressed me hard on why I wasn’t drinking. Eventually I said to him ‘I’m a recovering alcoholic.’ He put down his knife and fork and said ‘really, gosh, well you don’t look like an alcoholic.’ ‘No’ I said, ‘We’re difficult to spot without the park bench and the brown paper bag.’ If the same thing happened now, I’d probably just laugh and ask him to pass the Perrier.

      Billie Gledhill.

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