Reducing Stigma is Key to Addressing Substance Abuse Issue: Donna Higgins, Psychology

New England College professor Donna Higgins is a retired substance abuse counselor and has been teaching psychology for 11 years. Higgins discusses the impact of substance abuse on the U.S. economy, the different level of stigmatization associated with alcohol and drugs, the difficulty of reintegrating into the workforce, and the role of substance abuse counselors.

What is the economic impact of substance abuse in the United States?

People with addiction can’t keep a job. They start out with good intentions, but they can’t keep a job for long. It’s not a good idea to have someone impaired on cocaine up on a roof, building a house.

What would happen if we were able to reduce substance abuse by just 10%?

You would have fewer people on Social Security disability. You would have fewer people on unemployment. The crime rate would go down. The addict goes into criminal mode because of the time he or she has been addicted, cannot work and cannot support their habit. Their resources become limited.

Is there a difference between alcohol abuse and drug abuse?

This is a disease, a mental health disease. But the stigma attached to it indicates that drug addiction is separate from alcoholism. In the 1940s, alcoholism was affecting as many people, if not more, than we have today; now people believe getting treatment is a good thing. People don’t frown upon it as much. Drug use is considered a different problem and a character defect, and part of that is because it’s illegal.

Why is it important to address the stigma related to drug abuse?

The stigma attached ties into specific drug use. The hatred of the disease by non-using people, because it is not understood, only reinforces and strengthens the stigma that a patient feels. But no matter what you’re using, the problem is still there. The stigma has to be addressed as part of the solution.

What happens to people after treatment?

Getting employed can be very difficult. Even if you get into recovery and pull your life together, when you go for a job, they do a criminal check on you. It comes up that you’ve been in jail and arrested, so they won’t hire you. The stigma is reinforced.

I had a patient, and when he first came in to meet with me, he had on beautiful gold jewelry and he dressed nicely. He had nice crisp, clean clothes. Sure enough, he was able to pull his life together and enter recovery. He stopped selling drugs. What he ended up doing was selling his jewelry to pay for treatment, and he lost his car and needed to find gainful employment. The only job he could get was feeding animals at a farm; because of his extensive criminal history, he worked for $8 an hour, and he had to walk to and from work to get there.

Is there some way to address challenges related to rejoining the workforce?

Drug court is a program we’re using here (in New Hampshire). In essence, instead of going to jail, you’re assigned to a drug court. If you don’t violate the conditions of your release, you walk out of it with a clean slate. You don’t have a record.

Have drug courts been helpful?

I’ve seen some good recovery come out of drug courts. There seems to be some success in these programs. But this has taken a long time for the court system – all of my career – to get to where we are now. It has only been in the last 30 years that smart, educated people are starting to acknowledge that this is a mental health disorder.

Why do people become substance abuse counselors?

Sometimes there’s a personal connection. I think that with every course I taught, there were at least two people that wanted to head into this field because they are in recovery. As soon as I start reading the discussion boards, I know immediately, just by the things they are saying.

When you first meet an addict, there’s no light on. When the light goes on and their eyes open up, you see that they’ve got it. And they start using the tools that they’ve learned and pull their lives together. There’s no more rewarding feeling for the clinician. There’s nothing like it.

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