Attempts to prevent drug use paint addicts as monsters. Guess who then hides their addiction?

Join Together Northern Nevada (JTNN) is a nonprofit organization that works to reduce the impact of substance abuse on Washoe County by improving access to prevention, intervention and treatment services. For more information, check out www.jtnn.org or call 324-7557.

A young woman sits alone on the floor of a dark room, her right arm tied off, a needle in her left hand. As the needle moves closer to penetrating skin, images flash of a joint being lit, a razor working a white powder, and a pill being placed in a faceless mouth.

The young woman’s face is then shown floating in a sea of black, initially lacking any emotion before her empty eyes fill with excruciating pain. Her filthy clenched hand drops the syringe and she cries, shaking on the floor, before she melts into a black liquid.

“Just once,” appears in smoke-like script, “and you could lose everything.”

Many media portrayals of substance abuse, such as this one from an anti-drug ad broadcast in Washoe County, perpetuate an all too familiar image of the heroin addict—helpless, isolated, unstable—a subhuman species. Many of these representations are intended to prevent substance abuse among non-drug users, but at what price?

The people these images represent—or more appropriately, stereotype—fall victim to feelings of alienation and degradation, which often deters them from acknowledging any likeness to the “animals” portrayed. What’s more, these limited representations inadvertently reinforce negative stereotypes—and have far-reaching consequences.

Hidden in plain sight

A little over a decade ago, the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign (NMHAC), was launched as part of a White House Conference after a Surgeon General’s report on mental health cited stigma as the main reason people with illness don’t seek help. The consequences of the depression stigma range from careers abruptly ending to potentially preventable occurrences of youth suicides to unclaimed bodies of suicide victims, resulting from a family’s assumed shame and embarrassment.

In more recent years, organizations such as Active Minds have formed to specifically address and educate people on the fact that depression is a common and treatable medical illness. In the ’80s, only 33 percent of depression sufferers sought medical treatment, in early 2000s about 50 percent, and according to recent statistics, about 71 percent of sufferers currently receive treatment. Thus, it appears society is finally beginning to foster a “safe” environment in which people can feel comfortable addressing mental health problems in order to get the help they need.

While the numbers show improvement for the common acceptance of depression as a medical illness, stigmas still exist which have similar detrimental effects on sufferers of another serious, yet widely misunderstood disease—addiction. Current research has found common underlying genetic links that predispose individuals to develop both addiction and other mental illnesses, and further, an increased likelihood of one disease manifesting the other. In other words, depression can often lead to self-medicating, which can create an addiction. And vice versa, prolonged drug use can lead to damaged dopamine neurotransmitters, which may manifest as symptoms of depression.

Changing preconceptions

Unfortunately, efforts to treat addiction as a medical disease often suffer from the same stigmas that once plagued depression and other mental illnesses. According to the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 23 million Americans suffer from substance addiction, yet only 11.2 percent actually seek medical treatment.

“It’s hard to accept the title of a drug addict, but even harder when the common view of one is so negative and far from the truth,” said Allison Farmer, a recovering opiate addict. “These stereotypes affect addicts so much because it’s so looked down upon that you don’t know where to go for help and you don’t want to mess up your reputation.”

The reasons contributing to this disparity often stem from the stereotypical representations—and consequent treatment of—addicts as criminals, rather than addressing the disease as a serious health issue. This double-edged, law-and-order framing discourages many addicts from recognizing the problem, while also providing justification for insurance companies’ unwillingness to help with costs associated with medical treatment.

“Society looks at addicts like myself, as if we never want to make anything of ourselves and just use for the rest of our lives,” said Scott Peters, a recovering addict of prescription drugs and methamphetamine, who requested his real last name be withheld. “They paint a picture so evil and one-sided, it’s difficult to come out and say, “I’m an addict.”

Peters, along with the others in the article, all admit a certain degree of truth to the stereotypes, yet firmly believe they primarily serve to satisfy the majority of non-drug users, while negatively affecting those who actually need treatment.

“I can’t deny I’ve done some shady things for drugs. I stole, I sold all my shit and my furniture, I really didn’t know who I was anymore,” Peters confessed. “But the media doesn’t ever talk about why addicts act that way. It wasn’t something I did proudly, but I felt like I had no choice.”

By focusing only on the addictive behavior, rather than the underlying causes of addiction, media has created and perpetuated an image of a “dangerous, self-centered monster, that can’t be saved.” The powerful and pervasive stigma associated with addicts only serves to aggravate the problem by condemning the addicted, and ignoring the potential for recovery.

“[Drug addicts] in movies and ads are always represented by focusing on the worst behaviors associated with a drug,” said Johnson Chen, a recovering cocaine and heroin addict, “and people who have no experience with any of this shit take it for truth—it’s sad.”

“We’re seen as if we’re always willingly making the choice to use,” said Peters. “People don’t recognize the undeniable fact that it becomes something we have to do to function.”

And that is the reality of addiction. They must use to a certain degree, otherwise the withdrawal symptoms can be debilitating. Heroin withdrawal, for example, while not physiologically life threatening, creates “great discomfort and agony” for the addict. Some symptoms may include sleeplessness, chills, anxiety, fever, depression and suicidal thoughts—symptoms of a medical disease, which is too often misrepresented as a criminal willingness to use.

“I made a mistake by using, and it eventually became that I couldn’t stop,” said Peters. “I used to numb myself, I used because I was scared to face reality, but the way people think about addiction and turn their noses down at us is unfair. I feel sympathy for every struggling addict in the world, and it’s fucked up because society doesn’t seem to give two shits about us, and it creates [a mindset] for everyone else to treat us the way that we’re portrayed.”

Maintaining stigma

Remember the anti-drug ad’s final message: “Just once and you could lose everything.” Or the woman who suggested your brain was a perfect little egg right before destroying an entire kitchen, along with your “brain,” to teach you the effects of drugs. These messages may very well scare non-users away, but at the price of perpetuating harmful stigmas that feed the disease.

“Even for us who are in recovery and no longer actively using, it’s still hard to feel accepted into the community without feeling judged by people who know nothing of the actual disease, or being compared to the insulting images thrown up by the media,” said Farmer.

Depression, unchecked, can lead to job loss, destroyed relationships, substance abuse, and even suicide. Addiction, unchecked, may lead to job loss, destroyed relationships, depression, and death. Similar to depression in the 1980s, when only a third of sufferers sought treatment, addiction is a widely misunderstood and misrepresented health concern. Today, more than 20 million Americans suffer from addiction and will not seek treatment. The causes preventing each individual person will vary, yet the routinized stigma and law-and-order framing of the disease are two contributing factors, which undoubtedly aggravate the problem.