Addiction is a nuanced issue made even more complex by damaging myths and stigma.
By STEVE MICHELSON
Growing up in country Victoria had its benefits. Our small town of Milawa was generally safe and there were endless dirt roads to ride a BMX on.
My parents were small business owners who worked long hours, so I looked forward to weekends fishing with Dad, and trips to the “big smoke” of Albury to watch a movie with Mum. But like most families, ours had its challenges.
My parents arrived in Australia as young graduates who fell in love at university, but they grew apart over time. They fought incessantly, and while I don’t recall physical violence, it sometimes felt close. To cope, I grew up faster than any kid should have to, trying to hold it all together especially after Dad moved out.
My older brother, David, numbed his pain by experimenting with drugs and alcohol. He experienced addiction as a teenager and has lived with the consequences ever since.
My parents found it extremely difficult to discuss what David was going through, to seek help for him, or to seek help even for themselves.
They grew up in a world where addiction was seen to be a weakness and so they struggled with feelings of shame and embarrassment. In Australia, we are conditioned to believe that addiction is a ‘moral failing’ or a ‘choice’ and too often those with a lived experience of addiction are shrouded in shame.
For David, this stigma led to isolation and acted as a barrier to accessing help.
I remember driving him to a late-night GP clinic and demanding he go inside to get treatment. If he didn’t, I told him I would drive away, and we would never speak again. Looking back, this was not the right approach, but it demonstrates just how desperate things were. Without society’s judgement, I believe that my brother would have accessed quality care sooner and for longer, and that he would’ve been seen for more than his experience with addiction.
David is a former athlete, a budding astrologist, a fast car enthusiast, an amazing uncle to my two kids, and one of the smartest people I know.
But because of stigma and delayed treatment, addiction has affected the quality of his life, and ours, forever.
My story is a variation of one that is too common in households and communities across Australia. People from all walks of life turn to drugs and alcohol to help dull the pain caused by heartbreak, trauma, or ill health. And unfortunately, too many of these people experience shame as a result.
As I saw in my own family, this stigma is a huge obstacle that stops people from sharing their experiences and accessing help.
David could have experienced addiction to exercise, video games, or legal substances such as tobacco or alcohol, which still have stigma, but to a lesser degree. Instead, he experienced addiction to drugs and endured the full extent of society’s judgement.
It is incredibly important that we tackle these negative perceptions so that people struggling with addiction seek earlier intervention which could lead a healthier and happier life, free of shame. As with all society progression, for example LBGTQIA+ rights and domestic violence, change is created only by taking a stance, raising awareness, and debating policy solutions.
Tackling addiction in society
I am proud to have established a firm that specialises in providing strategic communications support to achieve positive social impact. We know how to challenge and change negative public narratives, and recently supported a leading Australian addiction research and education centre, called Turning Point, in running a national campaign to help change the stigma around addiction.
Because of this campaign experience, and my personal experience, I know that eliminating addiction stigma is a responsibility that all of society needs to share.
From the alcohol and other drug sector, to policymakers, the media, sporting organisations, corporates, and individual citizens, we all must do our part to destigmatise addiction and approach it as a health condition, not a ‘choice’.
The Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD) sector
Australia is fortunate to have an AOD sector that provides treatment services to those experiencing addiction, and services that address related issues such as housing, education, and financial disadvantage.
For decades, they have had the great challenge and responsibility of confronting the issue of addiction and stigma and trying to achieve better health outcomes. While the sector has received government funding, they’ve largely shouldered this without mainstream political support from our decision makers.
The campaign work that we recently did with Turning Point, called Rethink Addiction, can be used as a case study for how organisations within the AOD sector can work together to achieve real change in this space.
We aimed to establish addiction as a national political priority, achieve a more balanced policy and funding approach, and develop a national roadmap for change in order to successfully shift the way Australians experiencing addiction are supported and seen in society.
Together with Turning Point, we gained the support of over 70 partners from a variety of sectors, engaged with decision makers at the state and federal level, and convened a brains trust of key leaders in the AOD sector.
This resulted in vocal support and funding commitments, garnered the support of key Victorian political offices, and secured significant financial support from then-Minister Greg Hunt.
With this funding, Turning Point was able to host sell-out virtual and live events, including a National Convention in Canberra which brought 260 people and organisations from across the campaign together.
So, what did we learn from this experience with Turning Point?
First, that it’s vital for the AOD sector to agree upon and work together towards a shared goal, to increase the chances of lasting and impactful change. Rethink Addiction’s success was largely due to cohesion.
Second, policymakers play a key role in driving change, and have a responsibility to reduce stigma in society. This is especially true for Labor policymakers, given the party’s values and history of reform.
The experience of the Andrews Government after it chose to open Victoria’s first Medically Supervised Injecting Room (MSIR) in North Richmond is prescient here.
As Andrews and co quickly discovered, bold policy will be met with mudslinging. Nonetheless, it’s incumbent on Labor to be courageous and to do what is right, not what is easy.
Against this backdrop, and to help change this status quo, Federal Labor can and must do what the party does best by campaigning for progressive social change.
There are a few forms this could take, but the most effective approach would be to create policy, supported by a political strategy, that treats addiction as health issue, not as an issue of personal responsibility.
For illegal drug use, such policy would involve amending the law so that people who use drugs are not considered criminals.
For legal addictions like drinking and gambling, a public health approach to policy could focus on prevention, reduction, and community awareness.
Annastacia Palaszczuk’s recent leadership in these policy areas in Queensland goes to show how times have changed, and that bold reform is possible.
There is plenty of evidence to show that punitive policies contribute to addiction stigma, whereas policies that take a medical view lessen society’s judgement and encourage people to seek help.
The latter approach would unlock enormous social benefit by uplifting people who experience addiction, and it would also unlock enormous and society-wide economic benefits.
KPMG’s recent report, Understanding the cost of addiction in Australia, found that in 2021, the impact of productivity and associated losses to the nation’s economy due to addiction amounted to $80 billion.
The media also has a huge role to play in shifting conversation related to addiction. According to AOD Media Watch, poor reporting by media organisations perpetuates stigma and contributes to impulsive and inadequate policy responses that fail to consider scientific evidence.
For these reasons, the Australian Press Council suggests several guidelines for news organisations to follow when reporting on drug-related issues.
They include responsibly reporting on public debate about addiction, refraining from exaggerating the harmful effects of drugs, avoiding detailed accounts of drug consumption, and highlighting the parts of a story that discuss preventive measures against addiction.
These guidelines serve as a strong foundation in theory, but they are too often ignored by media organisations that rely on fear and drama to tell and sell stories about addiction.
Journalists must improve their reporting on addiction by including important context, by basing their stories on the best scientific evidence, and by using language that is unbiased and neutral. In so doing, they can help to dispel harmful addiction myths and the stigma that harms so many people.
Australians love sports of all kinds. This fact is reflected in the huge number of people who engage with sport each year. According to the Confederation of Australian Sport (CAS), 14 million Australians each year play sport themselves, attend sporting events, and watch sport on TV.
This means that sporting organisations and athletes can make a profound social impact. There’s no shortage of recent examples.
According to a report by Clearinghouse for sport (the information and knowledge sharing platform for Australian sport), sport has already championed positive change by bridging the cultural, gender, abilities, and generation gaps within society.
How clubs and leagues deal with drug use within their playing cohorts will play a role in changing the associated stigma. For an example, we only need to look at the way Collingwood Football Club men’s captain Darcy Moore responded when a video of his teammate, Jack Ginnivan, using drugs became public.
In a statement, Moore said that while Ginnivan had made a mistake, “he was not interested in shaming him going forward”. Instead, Moore said that “we want to support him”, a small sentiment that would create a ripple effect if it were to be repeated by other clubs and sporting leaders.
Corporate Australia also has a responsibility to chip in to create change. This could be achieved via support for not-for-profit organisations related to addiction and could take the form of monetary donations or volunteer work. Not only would this help to show the company’s commitment to social impact, but it would directly benefit the cause.
Corporates could also implement policies within their organisation that cater for employees who are experiencing addiction, for example, by implementing a well-informed substance abuse policy and an addiction education policy.
Most importantly, individuals have the power to help reduce stigma and bring about change. For example, we can offer compassionate support and display kindness to those experiencing addiction, use ’person-first’ language that focuses on the individual and not what they are experiencing, research addiction and how it works, speak up when we witness someone being mistreated because of their condition, and recognise that treatment does work and can help people to overcome addiction and live a happy and fulfilling life.
Committing to change
Addiction is a very nuanced issue that has been made even more complex by damaging myths and stigma. It is time to change the way that we approach addiction, and it is crucial that Labor commits to making this happen. Addiction has a huge effect on individuals and their families, and we must strive to provide better support for those experiencing the condition, as well as better support for their loved ones.
By doing so, we can work towards achieving a strong and accepting society that welcomes all people equally, and it may just mean that in years to come someone’s brother, father or friend experiencing addiction is not hindered by stigma in the same way that my family was. It’s time for Federal Labor to make tackling the issue of addiction a national policy priority.
Steve Michelson is Mordialloc ALP branch vice president and founder and director of strategic communications firm Michelson Alexander.