We often read on tabloids and newspapers that addiction is a disease. But, how often do we witness it actually being treated like one? There is an overwhelming stigma associated with substance abuse in society. Patients of substance abuse are, more often than not, labelled as immoral beings who are unfit to function in society. As India’s drug problem soars, with over 10 suicides due to drug abuse every day, the societal views regarding drug abuse need an immediate alteration.
Why Is Society Insensitive Towards Addiction?
Addiction, in fact, is the world’s most underidentified and undertreated disease. In India, it gets worse as the government and public agencies have failed to recognise the gravity of its scope. The issue is belittled to an extent that the last survey on the pattern, extent and trend of drug abuse in India was published 17 years back in 2004. This too left out women and children and covered only men within the age group of 12 to 60 years. Thus, we do not even have appropriate figures to ascertain the graveness of the issue. Although, this does not mean that we do not have the agency to deal with it. Whether or not we have the willingness to tackle it is yet a question.
The first step towards removing the stigma attached towards substance abuse is to recognise that these issues are deeply influenced by an individual’s genetic, psychological, social and cultural factors. This itself is a challenge since drug abuse in India remains a criminal offence. Since possession of drugs is illegal, any person cannot be get addicted without breaking the law.
“There is no other illness that can get you arrested simply for displaying the symptoms,; it is impossible to get addicted to illegal drugs without breaking the law. This matters here because of the key principles of criminalisation is to create a moral stigma”, writes Author Maia Szalavitz in her column for The Influence. Szalavitz has authored over six books on addiction and has written for Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post and many other publications. She argues that people haven’t bought the idea of addiction being a disease since in no other illness, be it depression, ADHD or Schizophrenia, is a patient subjected to punitive incarceration for simply being affected. She further adds that the governments cannot simultaneously criminalise addiction and destigmatise it. The criminalisation of substance abuse makes it difficult for even the most ethical people who are addicted to avoid deception and criminality.
Are Substance Abuse Victims Worthless?
The perception of society towards addicted individuals is of worthless criminals or unscrupulous individuals. This amounts their disease to personal failure. But, the fact that many prolific individuals, most notably Sanjay Dutt and Pratik Babbar, have suffered from addiction (and successfully overcome it) proves that they are valuable members of the society who have made significant contributions to the country.
Most substance abuse victims in are not fortunate enough to receive as efficacious treatment as Sanjay Dutt did. India lacks the institutional infrastructure and medication-based treatment to treat the 7.32 crore substance abuse victims in the country. The rehab centres in the country are mostly run by private institutions or NGOs which are funded by the central and state governments under the Scheme of Prevention of Alcohol and Substance Abuse. A standing committee’s 2015-16 25th report on the issue indicates that this program itself is heavily underfunded and the rehab centres in the country heavily burdened. This further aggravates the problem for drug abuse victims as they are failed by both institutions- society and the government- that were supposed to safeguard their well-being.
Victims of drug abuse often relapse into heavy usage after initial treatment. This is similar to chronic diseases like diabetes, asthma or hypertension where patients fail to comply with their ongoing treatment and return to square one. If they are still treated as patients and not immoral and unscrupulous individuals, why are victims of substance abuse subjected to flagrant moral policing? Changing the behaviour that compels the addict to stop usage is more difficult than treatment. This behaviour must be encouraged in society via positive reinforcement and not profiling victims as criminals. Addiction is an illness, not a personal or moral failure.