Media should not stigmatise drug ‘addiction’

drug abuse

People with problematic alcohol and drug use issues experience stigmatising or discriminatory attitudes daily.

Photo credit: Fotosearch

What you need to know:

  • According to the World Health Organization, dependence on illicit drugs is the most stigmatising condition.
  • People with problematic alcohol and drug use issues experience stigmatising or discriminatory attitudes daily.

An executive order issued last week by President Uhuru Kenyatta on establishment of an ultra-modern national mental hospital to fight the disease couldn’t have come at a better time.

This is because those of us in the realm of fighting alcohol and drug abuse have noted the consistency with which drug use disorders (loosely referred to as addiction) have not been properly framed as mental health issues. The media has for the longest time not categorised addiction as a mental health issue.

In his address to the nation, the President cited “… the phenomenal increase in mental illness, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic” as one of the main reasons for establishment of the East Africa Primer Mental Health facility.

While this is a timely move, it is important to point out that the pandemic just amplified a pre-existing condition where containment measures promoted a stay-at-home culture which exposed attitudinal points of view associated with persons with drug use disorders.

Such people have distorted thinking, behaviour and body functions. The media, on the other hand, teaches us about people with whom we do not regularly interact. This continual flow of data gives us ceaseless social cues about the nature of other groups of people, including which ones should be praised or scorned.

While at it the media has continued to stigmatise persons with drug use disorders by first branding them as ‘drug addicts’. Stigma occurs when some person is viewed as an “other” and thus denied full social acceptance.

Stigmatising condition

According to the World Health Organization, dependence on illicit drugs is the most stigmatising condition. People with problematic alcohol and drug use issues experience stigmatising or discriminatory attitudes daily.

 These experiences can be highly distressing and can result in people feeling a sense of hopelessness, shame, rejection and anger which can in turn trigger further alcohol or other forms of risky behaviour.

Media versions have a tendency to focus on the individual with mental illness rather than framing it as a societal issue. 

In a 2015 study that compared attitudinal outcomes, researchers found that stories of recovery decreased prejudiced attitudes toward people with mental illness and drug addiction and increased belief in treatment efficacy.

The media is therefore an ally in the fight against stigmatisation of persons with drug use disorders and should deploy its immense influential capabilities to rightly frame the issue as a mental one.

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