We Need To Stop Judging Addicts and Just Help Them
Earlier this month, a couple in Pennsylvania died from an apparent heroin overdose, leaving four children ages nine months to seven years at home with the bodies for more than a day. Their deaths only became known when the seven-year-old told her school bus driver that she hadn’t been able to wake her parents.
A Massachusetts mother overdosed on drugs in a Family Dollar store in September, while her two-year-old daughter screamed and pulled on her body. The video, released by police as a form of public “shaming” to show the consequences of drug use, showed other shoppers in the store taking pictures of the woman and her child, but making no effort to help either of them.
A toddler in Wisconsin was found trapped in the backseat of a car with the engine running this past September. In the front seat were a couple passed out from possible drug overdoses. Firefighters called to the scene administered Narcan and saved their lives.
Ohio police posted pictures on their Facebook page of a couple passed out from drugs in a car that nearly crashed into a school bus dropping off children, with a four-year-old boy in the backseat. The pictures were posted as a message to drug users to reconsider their actions.
While there is no doubt the parents in all of these situations made bad choices, public “shaming” by releasing videos and photos will work for those suffering from addictions about as well as it does for dogs or cats. Shaming is not the answer. Helping them is.
The Psychology Of Shaming
In an article published in October 2013 for the Association for Psychological Science, public shaming and guilt were studied to see which of the two had more of an impact on punishment and rehabilitation. More than 400 inmates were followed from the time they were initially jailed on felony charges through their sentences and a year after their release.
The study showed that guilt was focused on a particular act, but shame was focused on self. Someone who was found guilty of a crime in a court of law may have feelings of remorse and regret. On the other hand, those who were publicly shamed felt defensive and humiliated, and blamed others for their actions.
Initially, the study indicated that those who were shamed repeated crimes, and those who felt guilty at the time they were incarcerated were less likely to relapse. Additional analysis, however, showed that shame led to repeat crimes only when the shamed inmates blamed others. If they were shamed but accepted the blame, they were no more likely to commit repeat crimes as those who were not shamed.
The Impact of Shaming on Those With Addiction
When a parent suffering from an addiction is publicly shamed in a manner that includes their children, it often leads to the child being removed from the home and placed in foster care. When that happens, those children have a 56 percent rate of using recreational drugs.
Addictions, and the crimes committed by those who have them, are often quite different than crimes committed by those who are not suffering from an addiction. For the former, crimes are committed as a means to an end, that being the ability to obtain more of the drugs they crave. The latter, in most cases, commit crimes for financial gain.
Treating Addictions With Compassion
A study by the Harm Reduction Coalition, a national advocacy group for people affected by drug addictions, showed that when health providers approached someone suffering from an addiction with even the most subtle disdain, judgment or rejection, the person suffering from the addiction may reject care and miss out on learning about treatment options.
By taking a compassionate approach to the care of someone suffering from an addiction, and using harm reduction strategies, care providers can offer their patients, or those seeking help for their addictions, the best options to help them overcome their addictions.
There are many contributing factors that can cause a person to begin abusing drugs and other substances. Among them are genetics, which includes having parents who suffered from addiction, and environmental influences, such as peer pressure. Addictions are now recognized to cause neurochemical changes in the brain and are treated as a chronic disease associated with relapses.
Compassion Is the Answer
When society and the media give those with addiction a negative stereotype and judge them as being weak, lazy, criminal or lacking morals, they contribute to the low self-esteem and shame a person suffering from an addiction already feels about themselves.
Rather than condemning and judging someone with an addiction, the Harm Reduction Coalition encourages compassion, a nonjudgmental attitude, and understanding that those who suffer from addiction are in fact ill with a chronic disease much like any other.
If you told someone that those with addictions face the same types of judgment and stigma that many patients with diabetes feel, they might not view the two diseases as equal. Yet the judgment and shame that they feel is.
Ultimately, the goal for anyone who suffers from an addiction, or those who work in treatment centers for addiction, is to see that the person who is battling an addiction overcomes it and begins a healthier lifestyle. The goal should also be to work to keep families together by recognizing that recovery means breaking the cycle of addiction in a family.. Through helping and not judging, these people can heal.