As medical experts have gained a deeper understanding of mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, ADHD and OCD, so too have we become better educated about mental health thanks to government and charity-funded campaigns. Nonetheless, the majority of public perception surrounding drug and alcohol addiction compared to other mental health disorders is typically far less sympathetic.
Public response to deaths caused by substance abuse reflects the stigmatisation of addiction, which can discourage people from seeking help for their struggles. To tackle prejudices against those suffering from addiction, we explore how it is viewed differently to other mental health disorders, the role the British press play in forming public opinion and whether addiction is indeed a mental health disorder.
Do we view addiction and other mental diagnoses differently?
A mental health disorder that has experienced a positive change in public perception is eating disorders. The body positivity movement owes its astronomical rise to social media, which enabled society to hear the personal stories of people suffering from eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge-eating disorder.
The Depression Project has also garnered over 1.9 million Instagram followers, 1 million Facebook followers and has a 7 billion post reach across the world, raising awareness of the realities of depression and how it should be approached. In 2020, The Duke of Cambridge teamed up with Gareth Southgate, manager of the English National Football Team and the mental health initiative Heads Together to produce Head’s Up. This is a series of conversations on anxiety and self-esteem issues, raising awareness on mental health conditions.
Dry January and many more alcohol and drug addiction awareness campaigns exist. However, alcoholism and substance abuse are yet to receive a social movement as sympathetic as body positivity or the other mental health campaigns.
A contributing factor to the differing perception of addiction and other mental health conditions is how we are miseducated about addiction by sensationalist British tabloids, which often play into damaging and false stereotypes about those suffering from addiction.
Mental health disorders and British tabloid culture
When TV personality Nikki Grahame’s cause of death by anorexia nervosa was announced to the public in 2021, the response was one of shock and compassion. Many took to platforms such as Twitter and Instagram to express their condolences and spread awareness of the long-term pain that verbal bullying can inflict upon an individual. Ten years earlier in 2011, the death of universally acclaimed jazz singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse was met by huge public grief, but significantly less shock.
During her life, Amy was relentlessly harassed by the British press and cruelly demonised for her alcoholism and drug addiction. The sensationalism of her struggle only fuelled the public perception of addiction as criminal and morally wrong. This can be extremely damaging to people abusing drugs and alcohol, because it reinforces feelings of guilt and shame that can deter them from seeking the help they need.
Both Nikki and Amy attended programmes at rehabilitation centres to treat their mental health disorders. However, the difference in public reaction towards Amy’s death and Nikki’s death emphasises the varying levels of sympathy between addiction and eating disorders. British tabloid articles sensationalised Amy’s death as ‘inevitable’ in the years before her death. This is extremely problematic for those who are struggling and should be reminded that it is never too late to pursue addiction treatment.
Celebrities like Pete Doherty and Russell Brand have long been ridiculed by the British press for their struggle with drug addiction, until Brand started voicing his experience with drug and alcohol addiction on his two YouTube channels. American teen idols such as Lindsay Lohan and Justin Bieber experienced incessant media coverage of their struggle with substance abuse by the American press, exploiting their legal troubles to present these young adults as criminals.
Due to the increased media coverage of her drug addiction compared to her eating disorder, many often misremember Amy’s cause of death as a drug overdose when in fact it was due to an alcohol overdose and health complications caused by bulimia. Whether it be tabloid stories or online articles, the media will maintain a cyclical relationship with public perception until the cycle is broken.
Is addiction a mental health disorder?
One way to break the cycle of negative perceptions of addiction is to emphasise the fact that addiction is a mental health disorder. Eating disorders, depression and anxiety are also mental health disorders, and often involve similar symptoms to behavioural addiction, such as obsessive thoughts, compulsive actions and very low levels of self-esteem.
Sometimes, an individual may suffer from addiction and another mental health disorder at the same time. This is called a co-occurring disorder, which can be very difficult for someone manage without a specific dual diagnosis by a healthcare professional, and treatment at an inpatient or outpatient programme offered by a rehabilitation centre.
The opinion of healthcare experts
During the Westminster Social Policy Forum keynote seminar, Dame Carol Black, medical practitioner and former advisor to the British Government, proposed that using mental health psychologists to treat addiction could develop accessibility of treatment. She suggests that utilising Think Ahead, a Mental Health Social Workers programme funded by the Department of Health and Social Care, could be developed to introduce Addiction Social Workers:
“With relatively little adaptation, we could make this a mental health addition of social workers. That would cover mental health and all of the problems that are experienced socially by people with drug dependency and addiction.”
Dame Carol argued that this method could improve the current strategy of addiction treatment in the UK. Understanding that addiction should be treated as a mental health disorder could diminish the ridicule and animosity too often inflicted upon those suffering from alcohol and drug addiction.
Later on in the seminar, Niamh Eastwood, the Executive Director of Release, Britain’s centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law, emphasised how damaging the criminalisation of those suffering from addiction truly is:
“Whilst we spend £1.6 billion a year on drug law and enforcement, it has little to no impact on the availability of drugs. What it does do is have a number of unintended consequences, including increased market balance and a negative impact on people who become involved in the criminal justice system.”
Naturally, treating people who are experiencing alcohol and drug addiction as criminals only reinforces how difficult it can be for somebody to reach out and pursue addiction treatment:
“When we treat people first and foremost as criminals, it’s very hard to address their health needs. It acts as a barrier to treatment.”
Thinking back to the bullying Amy Winehouse experienced in the face of her drug and alcohol addiction, it is important to remember that people who are suffering require patience and empathy to encourage them to accept the reality of their struggle and decide to start a journey towards addiction recovery.
Can we treat addiction and other mental health disorders equally?
Recognising how damaging tabloid culture can be for those suffering from addiction, and listening to healthcare experts and people in addiction recovery, we can eradicate harmful stereotypes against addiction. This can renew our perception of addiction as a mental health disorder, creating new avenues of treatment for those with alcohol or drug addiction, eating disorders, mood disorders, personality disorders and co-occurring disorders.
In the UK, there are many different addiction treatment options available. However, there exists a false conception of rehab as a method that is only suitable for those with chronic drug or alcohol addiction. In reality, the wide range of inpatient and outpatient treatment programmes can be tailored to suit your individual needs.
The role of addiction rehab in mental health recovery
Attending an inpatient treatment programme at a rehabilitation clinic offers clients the ability not only to detox from a substance safely, but also to receive holistic therapies designed to address the underlying mental health issues that contribute towards addiction.
Ellen, a UKAT client who completed her inpatient treatment programme at our Surrey centre, Primrose Lodge, explains:
“There is a physical element to addiction, but learning to think in a different way is a massive part of recovery and a massive part of staying sober, so it’s mainly mental. You can get drugs and detox but unless you learn a new way of life then you will always pick up a drink again.”
During an inpatient treatment programme at a UKAT rehab clinic, our highly trained addiction therapists provide holistic therapy treatments to address all physical and mental aspects of various struggles to encourage long-term recovery. Addiction rehab can also help people suffering with eating disorders to recognise the patterns of addictive behaviour. Likewise, it permits people suffering with addiction to recognise that addiction is, in fact, a mental health disorder.
Changing perceptions of addiction for the better
Looking back at the public response to deaths caused by alcohol addiction, and the continued criminalisation of addiction, we still have a long way to go before all mental health disorders are treated equally. By reframing how we perceive alcohol and drug addiction, we can shift our perception of addiction in a sympathetic, educated and compassionate direction.
If you think that you or a loved one could be suffering from addiction and you would like to learn more about inpatient treatment at a rehabilitation centre, please contact our admissions team today.