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As a country in the past 100 years, we’ve done a pretty good job of kicking prejudice and intolerance out of mainstream public discourse. When you consider that women did not have the vote 100 years ago and that homosexuality was illegal less than 50 years ago, we should be proud of our history in combatting homophobia and sexism. For our generation it’s now unlikely for someone to utter a homophobic or sexist slur without some form of criticism directed at them and I’m proud to be part of that generation. Prejudice has not been totally eliminated from the public discourse though. Pockets of racism still remain in the country, the battle for equality between genders if nowhere near finished yet, and homophobia still exists to a small extent. However, as a country we should be looking to combat new prejudices as well. When it comes to how we treat victims of mental health and drug addiction, in many respects, we are still in the dark ages.
I hope that one day, just as a racist slur has become unacceptable at the dinner table, so will saying that you have no sympathy for drug addicts, that they’ve brought it on themselves, and that they should have sought help. The crass ignorance which comments like that demonstrate is too common. Prominent writer Peter Hitchens has even declared that he doesn’t believe in addiction, that it’s a myth and only the full force of the law can prevent it. He’s not alone in these beliefs, beliefs which ignore the fact that the American and British Medical Association have already diagnosed addiction as a disease.
We have grown up being told regularly that drugs are bad and that they should be avoided at all costs. However, somewhere in our short drug education we seemed to have missed out on talking about the victims. It’s not a logical step but we seem to have ingrained in us as a society that just because drugs are bad then naturally drug takers are. This dangerous conflation exacerbates problems for users, heaping an unnecessary social shame on them. Russell Brand, who speaks importantly on drug addiction, asked insightful questions after the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, when he said: “would Hoffman have died if this disease were not so enmeshed in stigma? If we weren’t invited to believe that people who suffer from addiction deserve to suffer?” Hoffman was the victim of an environment which refuses to recognise addiction for what it is: a disease. Diseases like addiction are often genetic but people also turn to drug dependency when at low ebbs in their life. However, as people have failed to acknowledge, this British attitude to drugs has heaped unnecessary shame on victims which can often prevent those who need help the most from seeking it.
There is a similarly hostile attitude, from some, to people suffering from mental health issues as well. John Woodcock the MP for Barrow and Furness announced he had depression in December. He claimed he announced it to make it easier for the next person, but surely we shouldn’t have to wait, like football does, for a current player to announce they’re gay to prove it’s not a homophobic sport.
Instead, we should be taking more pro-active stances on mental health to fight the narrative that it is somehow because of weakness that people suffer from mental health issues. Mental health has afflicted some of our most prominent figures. Stephen Fry, probably as close to a national treasure as you can find, has bipolar disorder but this hasn’t stopped him from being one of Britain’s most popular broadcasters. Alastair Campbell, Vincent Van Gogh and Marilyn Monroe, people from incredibly different backgrounds and lifestyles, and who have all suffered from different forms of mental health, show that it can affect anyone at any time. It’s just as random as someone picking up an injury running. We should seek to educate people more about what is for many a taboo subject and then understanding would increase.
The biggest mistake people make when talking about mental health and people with drug issues is that it is some form of weakness, but it’s devastatingly wrong. It takes strength to admit you’re suffering from depression, it takes strength to continue leading your everyday life when gripped by anxiety, and it also takes strength to carry on when drug addiction is afflicting almost every thought inside of you. As a country we should reserve judgement and seek to change opinions which only serve stigmatise those whose suffering is not of their own doing, and in turn we would be continuing a proud tradition of challenging intolerance.