According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, addiction is a brain disease with significant behavioral characteristics. Nicotine, alcohol, illicit drugs and controlled prescription drugs all affect the pleasure and reward circuitry of the brain in similar ways. "I think people often forget that substance use disorder is a disease, that requires some form of treatment," said Jill Hauk of New Life House. "Addiction is a recognized disease and should be treated as such. Therefore, the stigma surrounding addicts is an issue that must be resolved."
There are a variety of reasons why teens seek out and use harmful substances. Peer pressure to consume alcohol and experiment with other party drugs is a common first encounter, while being prescribed drugs for school is another way to open the gates of addiction. From then on, teenage addicts become powerless and unable to control their drug and alcohol abuse. "Once addicts are hooked, they are seen as 'junkies,' and that just isn't right," said Hauk.
Since addiction is deadly, the lack of empathy and increased misunderstanding surrounding addicts, is ultimately hurting those who suffer. "The misunderstanding of addicts, that results in the stigma around them, holds back the community at large from reaching out a helping hand to those in need," said Hauk. "It’s about time that we overhaul this."
There are a few possible solutions to overhauling the stigma of drug addicts. "First and foremost, people in recovery must be willing to speak up and advocate the disease of substance use disorder," said Hauk. "This advocacy does several things, including showing people that recovering addicts don’t resemble the fantasy they had in their imagination, and it also gives the other side the voice it so desperately needs."
While having empathy for addicts may be difficult, thinking about the issue from the perspective of an addict's parent, sibling or friend can change one's entire outlook. "I believe that the best way to advocate empathy is to instill a sense of understanding into the community at large," said Hauk.
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