Awareness (again)

It’s another day for awareness today. Are you getting a bit sick of me writing about these yet? Today – the 26th June – is the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. The United Nations, governments, non-governmental organisations, the media and citizens around the world will use this day to raise awareness about the impact of drug abuse and illicit trafficking of drugs. Apparently.

To be honest, I’m not sure we need any more awareness on this issue.

Because all the peoples that I’ve met and listened to at dinner parties and social events and at random occurrences during the day seem to have heaps of awareness. That is, if ‘awareness’ corresponds to ‘very passionate and unwilling to compromise opinions’ on the matter.

And as someone who has worked in the Drug and Alcohol sector for over a decade, sometimes this awareness and these opinions make me want to cry.

A little while back I had the weekly privilege of spending an evening with a bunch of beautiful souls. I was running a recovery group for people wishing to change their substance use. We’d spent the couple of hours, amongst other things, discussing love and fear and vulnerability and hope. As is often the case, I left the group with a sense of warmth in my being.

As I was driving home in torrential rain, I attempted to find a local radio station for a river/flood update. I came across some talkback radio. I should have changed the station. But I persisted. And I listened to the shock jock and an ill-informed listener from Gundagai discuss how Australia’s ‘War on Drugs’ had failed because the Australian Government had been too lenient on people who use and sell drugs. The alternative strategies they discussed included lifelong gaol sentences and the radio presenter called for “bringing back the guillotine”.

And the sense of warmth in my being died.

This shit makes me really, really sad. Because, believe it or not we are still talking about people. And these comments are dismissive and disdainful. They reflect a moral judgment that is a relic of a bygone era when our understanding of addiction was limited, when we didn’t have access to the evidence and research we do now. Yet, these are the ‘opinions’ of the ‘aware’ that we hear over and over again.

Scientific progress has helped us to understand so much about alcohol and drug use. And it’s complicated. No one ever chooses to become dependent upon a substance. Instead, a unique and complex combination of epigenetics, environmental stimuli, psychological factors and drug components form to create a melting pot of factors that can result in physical changes to the brain’s circuitry, which lead to tolerance, cravings, and the characteristic compulsive and destructive behaviours of addiction.

We also know that people who experience other vulnerabilities – mental illnesses, poverty, social disadvantage, homelessness, unemployment, intergenerational trauma and childhood sexual abuse – are more likely to experience substance use disorders. Yet this never seems to be mentioned in ‘awareness’ raising.

When we talk about drug and alcohol use disorders, without a thorough understanding of the complexity of the issue, or we offer quick-fix solutions or make large-scale generalisations we have the potential to cause wide-spread harm.

If we hold and express negative attitudes towards people who are suffering, we have the potential to increase the suffering infinite fold. Research has shown that when people experiencing substance use disorders feel judged or shamed they will not seek treatment for the disorder. Communities can become less accepting of treatment programs due to popular, but misguided, opinions regarding people using substances.

We might not always realise the effect our judgment might have on others. Judgement and shame can come as a result of the way a non-addict looks at, talks to or otherwise mistreats the individual who is suffering from an addiction or who once suffered from an addiction. This social stigma can deepen suffering. For many, it’s not just the fight of addiction, but also the fight against the stigma associated with it.

If you ask me, that’s the real ‘war on drugs’.

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