Something’s deeply wrong in the way America sees addiction. Addiction treatment facilities such as ours are seeing millions of men, women and children who are suffering because of it. Some aspects of the issue are as simple as a single phrase, but the connotation it carries is as heavy as millions of lives a year.
Let’s think of it this way. A diabetic can be labeled type 1 or type 2, depending on the progression of the disease. An addict, meanwhile, is labeled a crackhead, an alcoholic, or a junkie.
A cancer screening can come back positive or negative. So could a pregnancy test. Yet a drug test can come back either “clean” or “dirty.”
Imagine if you were suffering chest pains and upon arriving at the emergency room the nurses took one look at you and said, “Too many cheeseburgers, huh? I can already tell the blood test is going to come back greasy.” That would be reprehensible in a professional environment, especially in a doctor’s office where you’d expect unbiased care and attention.
Seeking help for an addiction disorder is difficult enough without the judgment that so often comes with it. For many addicted individuals, the disease can be a coping mechanism for other serious traumas. Acknowledging addiction often means admitting the worst about ourselves or reliving a traumatic past experience. It feels like weakness; it feels like failure. Almost every program, pamphlet, movie and public policy about addiction encourages this negative outlook. It’s no wonder people have a hard time seeking treatment when they need it most.
We’ve spent $1.3 billion on programs such as D.A.R.E., which further emphasizes the criminality of addiction rather than helping the children and teens who are coping with addiction in their own lives and families.
That's precisely the issue: Every aspect of addiction is portrayed negatively in the public. Melinda Gates, the philanthropist co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, says that one of the most critical failures of healthcare nonprofits is our inability to compete for attention against for-profit corporations, because our message is so gloomy and negative.
It’s not difficult to peddle fast food, sports cars or fashion accessories with professional cinematography, beautiful models and catchy songs. But when you’re working with a deadly disease, you’re peddling the idea of avoiding something:
“Take a cholesterol test to make sure your arteries aren’t choking you from the inside out.”
“Scoliosis or just bad posture? Get a test and you could find out how worried to be!”
What market do those messages appeal to? Are you pumped up to check in at a doctor’s office now? People don’t respond well to negatives, which is why it’s no surprise that the drug and alcohol epidemic grows in breadth and expense each year.
Whereas we’re bombarded with a dozen ads a day for juicy burgers, sparkling soda and luxury goods (and how good they can make life), we’re made to feel like failures when we think about potential weaknesses in our own health. Addicts receive the brunt of this abuse, with phrases such as “clean” or “dirty” replacing professional, clinical diagnoses and complicated insurance policies and medical staff that seem to disregard their needs.