Compared to most – if not all – other health conditions, addiction is often viewed in a very negative light.
“There’s this notion that it’s a failure of moral character or a sign of weakness, either down to poor self-control or lack of willpower,” says Professor Dan Lubman, Director of the Monash Addiction Research Centre at Monash University and Executive Clinical Director of Turning Point, Australia’s leading national addiction treatment, research and education centre.
“Rather than seeing it for what it is – a complex health disorder – it’s common for people to think: ‘Well I can place the odd bet or have the occasional drink and not go overboard so why can’t you?’. That and also: ‘Why can’t you just stop?’”
Lubman says it’s also true that, at least in the case of drug addiction, strategies like the ‘war on drugs’ have fed into a “drugs are bad so the people who take them are also bad” mentality.
“Sadly, the stigma created by both factors does two things – it prevents people from reaching out for help, and it also means they’re unwilling to share their own stories – not just about addiction but also of recovery,” he says.
While more and more people are sharing their stories around mental health, Lubman says the absence of lived-experience stories about addiction is a major problem.
“The knock-on effect is that people in the broader community aren’t always able, or willing to identify, that they may have a problem because they don’t fit the stereotypical image of addiction. They can’t relate,” he says.
“And without stories that provide hope, it also means there’s a misconception that people can’t recover from addiction and that treatments aren’t effective, when nothing could be further from the truth.”
Myth busting: five need-to-know facts about addiction
Last year, Turning Point launched the Rethink Addiction campaign to help transform Australia’s attitudes towards addiction. These are five core messages from the campaign:
Addiction can affect anyone
People who develop an alcohol, drug or gambling disorder, and the one-in-20 who develop an addiction – the most severe form of the disorder – come from all ages and backgrounds.
“Despite the stereotypes, addiction doesn’t discriminate,” says Lubman.
This is something he was passionate about portraying in Addicted Australia, a documentary series Turning Point created in partnership with SBS and Blackfella Films.
“Addicted Australia tells real people’s stories and, as well as addressing stereotypes, it also provides hope. It’s so important to see these stories.”
Addiction is a health condition
There are a range of biological, developmental and environmental risk factors, including trauma, social isolation and genetics, that make some people predisposed to experiencing addiction in their lifetime.
“It’s not a personal failure,” says Lubman, “and it deserves the same compassion as any other health condition. It’s ironic that as a society we tend to have great compassion for people who are survivors of trauma – whether that’s from war or sexual abuse – except for when they turn to alcohol or drugs to deal with that trauma.
Encouragingly, we’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of compassion that’s been shown on social and mainstream media in response to Addicted Australia, so the desire for change is there.”
Mental health and addiction are closely related
While addiction can undoubtedly impact mental health, mental health can also be a risk factor for addiction.
“Unfortunately, not only are people living with addiction often excluded or discriminated by the healthcare system in general, but there can also be a view that they need to get their alcohol or drug problem ‘fixed’ before their mental health can be treated.
Most people I see are using alcohol or drugs or gambling as a solution to something, and part of treatment is understanding what’s driving that and finding healthier solutions and coping mechanisms. Ultimately, if both addiction and a mental health condition are present, we have to treat them at the same time.”
Treatment can be very successful
“I see so many people who’ve been living with addiction for years get better,” says Lubman. “Something else I hope Addicted Australia has helped do is alter the narrative so that recovery from addiction is seen as not just a possibility but a realistic goal.”
Help is available
If you’re living with addiction, not only are you not alone, there’s so much support available.
Online services include Turning Point’s Alcohol and Drug Counselling Online service and Gambling Help Online. You can also call the Gambling Support line on 1800 858 858 or the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline on 1800 250 015 for free and confidential advice.
You may find this article about drugs, alcohol and mental health helpful, as well as Drugs, alcohol and depression: Five key questions.
The battling the booze thread in the Beyond Blue forums is well worth a read; you’ll find many personal stories from people dealing with the negative effects of alcohol.
Here, Luke Richards shares his experience with mental health, alcoholism and the factors that contributed to his recovery.
You can also read more people’s stories or share your own story about addiction at Rethink Addiction.