What are our societal perspectives of addiction?

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the specter of isolation and suffering has caused mental health to worsen for many people around the world. A particularly concerning outcome of this rise in mental health issues is that of addiction or addictive behaviors (Volkow, 2020). Addiction can appear with a variety of substances and persists, largely, because of the social stigma that accompanies substance use and addiction. We explore addiction in relation to specific community portrayals, what substance use and addiction looks like in higher education, and offer ways to include people who are in recovery or are sober to combat these negative narratives. We all have the power to support and include those who are struggling with addiction, particularly as we enter a time of year that has historically been difficult for those in recovery.

Reflect: What are our societal perspectives of addiction?

Who do you see when you think of the word “addiction”? When you reflect on media portrayals of substance use, who is portrayed positively and who is portrayed negatively? Before jumping into discussion about addiction in higher education, it’s important to point out how addiction narratives have erased and/or harmed marginalized communities. For example, women are largely unrecognized in many conversations about addiction, as a result of not being included in addiction research until the 1990s (Tuchman, 2010). Recent research has shown that significant differences appear in the patterns of use and addiction for women, connected to their social experiences, that require a rethinking of how we conceptualize addiction (Bezrutczyk, 2021). People of Color (especially Black people) have also been disproportionately demonized and punished for substance use (Jegede, 2020; Volkow, 2021), as policy creation and enforcement has been/continues to be structured in systemic racism. Because the relationship between experiences with system(s) of oppression and risk for addiction is significant, those at the intersections of these systems are most harmed by erasure/stigma, such as for Women of Color (Beatty, 2020; Schiff et al., 2020).

Learn: Addiction and Higher Education

Much research has examined how addiction appears in and affects college students, who are consistently entrenched in a very drinking-/drug-taking-heavy environment during college (Hill et al., 2017). In a 2018 report, SAMHSA found significant increases in (near) daily use of substances in young adults, particularly young adult women (5.3 million of whom struggled with alcohol). In the academic setting, students have begun to non-medically use prescription stimulants to more successfully cope with increasing academic stress (SAMHSA, 2019). Significant use/addiction to alcohol/drugs can have negative physical, emotional, mental, and academic consequences for college students (Palmer et al., 2013; Welsh et al., 2019). The story of substance use and addiction is much less understood for faculty and staff. Where students have increasingly addressed the stress of college by nonmedically taking stimulants, stressful work environments have contributed to an increase in harmful alcohol use amongst faculty (Colacion-Quiros & Gemora, 2016). Disclosure of addiction among faculty members, however, is exceedingly rare (Burns et al., 2021). The pressures of appearing sociable in professional settings (like happy hours at conferences) and reputable on the career path (such as being on the tenure track) make navigating the academy while in recovery incredibly difficult (Burns, 2021; Ross et al., 2020). To avoid negative social consequences, both students and faculty in recovery use a variety of strategies in substance-related contexts (such as making jokes, “passing”) (Romo, 2012; Romo et al., 2014), often only disclosing recovery when perceived costs are not significant (Romo et al., 2015).

Change

  • Challenge negative narratives: A double-edged stigma revolves around substance use. The prevalence of substance use culture often leads to negative perceptions of those who do not participate, such as being called a “killjoy” (Robertson & Tustin, 2018). Alternatively, addiction is often cast as a highly individual and moral problem, rather than an illness or condition, at significantly larger rates than other mental conditions (Corrigan et al., 2017). Other manifestations of this stigma include microaggressions like “Oh, I’m such a crackhead!” that connect “bad” behaviors to substance use. If you hear someone promoting these kinds of narratives, ask them to think about the implications of what they are saying. How do they dehumanize people who use substances? How do they marginalize people who choose not to use substances? Consider other microaggressions that face people who are currently dealing with addiction or those in recovery by reading this post by William White (2016).
 
  • Transform the culture: One of the most important steps to creating an environment that supports people who are currently dealing with or are in recovery from addiction is to role model and support vulnerability in those around you. By creating a vulnerable and inclusive culture, people may be more likely to disclose addiction/recovery, which leads to a decrease in self-stigma (Corrigan et al., 2015) and promotes wellness (Prince, 2017). To learn more about how culture can include, we strongly encourage you to read/listen to the stories of those who have dealt with addiction while being a part of higher education (such as Burns [2021]), as they can share insights as to what they need for support as well as help us overcome stereotypes we have about addiction.

 

  • Switch up your social/professional outings: Think about the kinds of social events you’ve attended/hosted. Was it structured around some kind of substance that could potentially be addictive, like alcohol? Though things like happy hours might seem like an easy way to get people connected in your personal or professional life, the emphasis on substance use in these settings can be isolating and potentially triggering for someone who chooses not to participate. Try to reimagine ways to gather with others that doesn’t revolve around (or heavily feature) substance use, such as a luncheon social. If you decide to feature alcohol, make it clear that someone deciding not to partake, for any reason, won’t affect their social standing in the group.