Letter published in the Cape Argus, Monday June 29th 2009, pg. 11.
The Editor 27June 2009
ADDICTION – THERE IS HOPE.
We all know about the destructiveness of drug abuse, and every week we read about more horrors, more violence, more crime that is directly attributed to drug abuse.
The disease of alcohol and drug abuse – described by some experts as a ‘social health nightmare – is an epidemic of global proportions affecting millions of individuals, families, work places and communities.
The number of young people engaged in drug experimentation and regular use is alarming and demands urgent attention.
Addiction wreaks devastation, and respects no boundaries of income, race, occupation or geography. Crime is out of hand, and more than 80% of reported crime is drug related. Violence is entrenched in our families and more than 70% of gender abuse is drug related.
A conservative estimate of the health and other social cost associated with drug abuse in South Africa is R 12 billion per year. Drug trafficking also continue to foment corruption, one of the most formidable obstacles to good governance.
Yet, having just observed the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking last Friday, the silence about addiction is entrenched in communities, workplaces, our churches, and in our homes.
This monster is living in our homes, yet we still ignore its presence.
It is easy for people to talk about their heart disease or kidney disease or diabetes or hypertension. Yet, the Disease of Addiction?
Generally our society still views drinking and drug use as a behaviour of choice or a moral failing instead of a health issue.
People impacted by addiction are reticent about asking for help as society at large still perpetuating norms that foster shame and stigma.
We tend to think of alcohol and drug problems in terms of junkies and alcoholics who need to be treated to overcome their addiction.
Of course providing treatment is important because it is likely to benefit treated individuals, yet it is not enough.
No matter how effective treatment is for the individual, if the family and community dynamics contributing to these problems are unchanged, it will do little to reduce the overall level of harm experienced at the family and community level.
Our health system traditionally addresses addiction when a crisis occurs: car wrecks, violence, criminal arrests, or firing from a job.
We act as though entry to a treatment centre is the beginning of the disease. The illness’s emerging symptoms and the remarkable fact or recovery remain below society’s awareness level. Both aspects of this inattention breed the ignorance and misinformation that cost us all so much pain and money.
Responding to the symptoms of addiction when they present themselves is consistent with the fact that alcoholism and drug addiction is a primary, chronic, and progressive disease.
Early awareness and early intervention lead to early recovery. Better education and life skills are needed to inform young people about the devastating effects of drugs, and to help them resist the pressures to experiment.
Efforts need to be in place to raise awareness. Drugs are illegal because they are a problem, and not a problem because they are illegal. Drug education is HIV/Aids prevention.
Governments, NGO’s, schools, the workplace and the media must work hand-in-hand. Our collective efforts must focus especially on young people through education, outreach, peer-to-peer networks, and using platforms such as such as sport, music and entertainment that inspire young people.
Equally important is to engage parents, teachers and employers to play their part in full. Our efforts also require working to reduce supply. The light of science and not the darkness of fear and ignorance should guide these efforts.
Individuals and families who have survived addiction should now become visible and vocal stakeholders. Recovery is a Reality.
The good news is that today we enjoy a generation of people in recovery that is ready and willing to speak out and take on the role of mentors.
History teaches us that the voices of survivors, their family members and allies drive public responses to major illness.
Addiction is no exception. Recovery from addiction is happening for thousands of South Africans – rich and poor, young and old, executives and school drop-outs, women and men, black and white, country and city dwellers.
Achieving a stable, productive and fulfilling life is, in fact, a reality when proven solutions are applied. Appropriately diagnosed and treated cases of addiction yield many happy outcomes: Recovery happens. Families heal. Money is saved. Life gets better. Recovering people give back. Everyone wins.
We need to take responsibility to heal ourselves, our families and our communities. We need to embrace the hope of recovery, and the spirit of courage, knowing that Recovery is a Reality!