In our society, addiction continues to be a topic spoken of in hushed tones and whispers alone. But things change when the person involved happens to be the son of a Bollywood mogul. The ‘raid’ earlier this month on a cruise ship involving Aryan Khan by the NCB is a murky affair. As the case unfurls, the grounds upon which the case stands grow weaker.
The reason for this debacle remains a mystery and is a heavily debated topic. Aryan Khan’s bail must give us pause for thought. The question on all our minds is- why Aryan? Was it a shoddy attempt to target his father? Or was it as Mehbooba Mufti said because his surname is Khan? Regardless of the why, this case has exposed many holes in the larger fabric of societal perception of drug users.
Poisonous Media Portrayal
A study conducted by Indianjpsychiatry.org on the impact of celebrity drug use reporting found that “no corresponding increase was noted in online search interest for themes of help-seeking for drug-related problems in general and cannabis use in particular.” To put it in simple terms, media coverage of drug-using celebrities serves the TRP gods and them alone. They engender no real change and end up feeding the stigma associated with drug use.
These seemingly innocuous acts have dire consequences. Many media outlets tend to link illegal drug use with crime and depravity. To cite an example, in the Philippines radio hosts and newspapers target users and hold them responsible for all kinds of atrocities. Things like, “only drug addicts are capable of such things” are routine condemnations directed towards users. Such is the plight of those who use. The line between being a drug user and criminal begins to fade, resulting in a maze of misdirected hatred.
This kind of scapegoating furthers what Merrill Singer and J. Bryan Page, medical anthropologist, call “social value of drug addicts”. The concept is a tactful way of saying what all of us see every day on the news. Political leaders, often in a transparent attempt to compensate for their lackluster response to real issues, use addicts and users to divert attention away from themselves. In this way, they can claim they are rescuing the public from supposed threats without actually doing anything concrete.
Often times the alleged attempts to prevent addiction are a moral crusade meant to taint the character of those who use. Anita Hardon, an anthropologist, puts it best. She says that the objective of addiction prevention policy has little to do with drug users and is more about “the political careers of moral entrepreneurs.”
The consequence of such targeted vitriol results in fear and hostility setting into motion a vicious punitive cycle that harms everyone. This stigma, born out of fear and loathing, can prevent those who wish to seek help for addiction. Addiction, like any other mental battle, deserves to be met with understanding and compassion. People who struggle with addiction, drugs or any other kind, are denied employment and tend to fall back on substance abuse.
The draconian views on drug use and abuse propagated by the media subject users to a doomed fate. Due to being denied job opportunities, they are forced to endure economic depravity. This could potentially cause generational trauma as the first people to be affected are always family. These far-reaching consequences of the demonization of substance addicts are left unacknowledged. Since addiction is spoken of only in whispers, many who struggle with it don’t come out and talk about it.
A study found that only 1 in 10 addicts voluntarily opts for rehabilitation. 90% is the price we pay for stigmatizing a real issue.
Extending a Helping Hand
Many tend to view addicts as less than. This dehumanizing process makes it easier to bully them and hate them. In their myopic view on the matter, people often forget that addicts are a product of their circumstances. Many children are peer pressured into partaking in using drugs. In other cases, living in a household with a tyrannical family might force people to lean on drugs or any other substance for comfort. Economic hardships too might contribute to the number of drug addicts. An estimate of 70,000 children is addicted to drugs in the Delhi streets alone. Saying so might be a generalization, but it must still be considered. We must collectively strive to rehumanize those amongst us who struggle with substance dependence. It is the first step towards helping people come ask for help.
This could perhaps aid harm reduction in the punishments inflicted on individuals. Harm reduction is an approach that has gained much traction in recent times. It acknowledges that harming people in an attempt to “correct” them is more detrimental than it is beneficial. And on a more human note, heavy-handed drug laws are inappropriate and abasing. Drug dependence doesn’t deserve punishment, but rather an inviting ear and patience.
One way of extending support is to encourage those who struggle with substance dependence to seek professional help. Therapy and Rehabs have helped people power through addiction for decades. As the capabilities of mental health have matured, the aid they offer has matured with them. Counselling, NA (narcotics anonymous), therapy can all contribute to the betterment of addicts and drug dependents.
People with substance use disorders, in particular, are viewed by the public as weak-willed. Such biased assumptions must be dealt with since it only furthers the notion of drug addicts being the root of social evils. Educating people about the difference between drug dependence and use, about the struggles of addiction can only do so much. In spite of efforts to educate the public, this misperception has increased over time according to the findings from national surveys in 1996 and 2006.
Take it from Antony, an ex-drug dependent. “Being treated as if I didn’t belong- being called a junkie, a dope fiend. Those are hurtful words, you’re human you feel them. The stigma actually kept me from getting help.”
The Road Ahead
Many maintain that the cause of the increasing stigma is the negative media portrayal of those recovering from addiction as well as those suffering from it. The only way we can shake off the powerful hold these stereotypes boast is to talk with and listen to drug users and addicts. In doing so, we eliminate the toxic middle man- the media- and get the story straight from the horse’s mouth.
We must also redirect our focus from the alleged wrongs caused by addiction to the benefits of recovery. Often policymakers and addiction prevention campaigns tend to resort to fear tactics. This primitive, even destructive mechanism serves no real purpose and gives rise to what is known as ‘self-stigma’. It is nothing but the internalization of all the hate spewed at addicts.
We must be willing to acknowledge and alter the toxic notions of addiction. Only then can the beginnings of real change be felt.
About the writer: Bhargavi Barnabas is a Content writer, English literature student, researches and writes on feminism, mental health, and LGBTQIA+ issues, she is also a Bouncbk user.
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