While addiction is often romanticized in fiction, it is usually considered a social taboo in real life. People, especially impressionable young minds seeking an escape from their problems, can easily fall victims to bad habits such as substance abuse. Some of them are able to find help and quit in time. Some unfortunate others, though, end up becoming addicted, and the romanticism of heroes like Devdas doesn’t seem so appealing anymore. Since widespread awareness and social support are not available for addicts, especially in countries like Pakistan, the society ends up rejecting them. The need of the hour is to destigmatise substance abuse and addiction. For this reason, while determining Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030, the UN set Goal 3 as “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”. This translates to a number of targets including Target 3.5 “Strengthen the prevention and treatment of substance abuse, including narcotic drug abuse and harmful use of alcohol”.
What is Substance Abuse?
Substance abuse is widely perceived to be a social ill resulting from overuse of and addiction to recreational drugs. In reality, it includes addiction to various substances, such as medicinal drugs like pain killers, common inhalants as well as alcohol. It poses not only the risk of physically harmful effects of the substance used but also problems stemming from unhygienic and unsafe practices, such as spread of HIV and Hepatitis C due to unsanitary use of syringes.
Why is it difficult for addicts to recover?
According to UN World Drug Report 2016, 247 million people worldwide used drugs in the preceding year, out of which 29 million suffered from drug use disorder. Sadly only 1 in 6 people received treatment that year.
One of the main reasons for such a low number of people in treatment is the social stigma attached to substance abuse and addiction. It is an incorrect belief that addicted people willingly became such. In fact, opioid addiction, one of the most common, starts with a regular use of prescription painkillers due to a genuine need, which later turns into addiction. However, since the common perception of abuse is that of “recreation”, addicts are treated as outcasts by the society, often abandoned by friends and family. This dissuades them from seeking professional help. It also induces a feeling of worthlessness and hopelessness, resulting in further self-harming and negative behaviour.
In addition, criminalising narcotics and other substances could lead to more problems. Known addicts or ex-addicts could be marginalized in their community in terms of health care or employment matters. In some countries, such as the United States, an employee who becomes an addict has legal protection and therefore, cannot be fired if they wish to join a rehabilitation program. Not all countries have such legal provisions, though, and employers everywhere may still have a negative bias. These attitudes create further issues of unemployment and ultimately financial exclusion and instability. In many cases, such rejection and negative attitudes push addicts further into a vicious cycle, as they often don’t see a way out.
Destigmatising substance abuse and addiction
Speaking against the stigma, celebrities such as Robert Downey Jr, Matthew Perry, Demi Lovato and Danielle Radcliffe have been vocal about their battle against substance abuse. Moreover, due to the increase in awareness of mental health issues, and widespread use of social media, an increasing number of people have been sharing about their journey and struggle with addiction.
A successful example of discouraging substance abuse is of Portugal where drugs were decriminalised in 2001, subsequent to the heroine epidemic in the country. This means that, while trading of drugs is still a criminal activity, possession of smaller quantities of drugs is treated as a public health problem only. The community has benefitted immensely from such measures.
One should not hesitate to reach out to professionals, including doctors and mental health practitioners, for help. Appropriate counselling can guide towards the right solutions and medication, if needed.
In Pakistan, although, the topic of substance abuse and addiction is still taboo and many addicts fall through the cracks easily. The government’s Anti Narcotics Force (ANF) maintains hospitals and treatment centers, MODEL ADDICTS TREATMENT & REHABILITATION CENTRES (MATRCs) in various locations. The majority of existing treatment and rehabilitation facilities provide detoxification services only, particularly in the public sector run health facilities, and no rehabilitation programmes exist, as per the ANF. Other private organizations such as Lifeline and AAS are also working towards helping addicts recover.
Despite the efforts by governments, a lot of work still needs to be done to destigmatise substance abuse and addiction all over the world. It is important to talk about struggles of addicts and create more awareness so that the problem could be eradicated and we all get to create and live in an inclusive society.