Drew Barrymore. Eric Clapton. Robert Downey Jr. What do all of these celebrities have in common? They are all former substance abusers who beat addiction and earned professional respect after building successful careers. As more people come forward to acknowledge their addictions, the stigma of substance abuse — as well as the public’s perception of drug addicts and alcoholics as homeless or mentally unstable — is subtly changing.
The Stigma of Addiction
During the mid-twentieth century, people who suffered from substance abuse had few options for treatment. Alcoholics Anonymous, a faith-based program that relied on the removal of character flaws by a higher power, worked for some but not all. Many who struggled opted to go it alone and relapsed into addictive behavior. Others suggested that addiction could not be treated at all. Family members were ashamed and kept the secret hidden to avoid embarrassment. For decades this attitude persisted, perpetuating and often worsening the addiction.
Today, as increasing numbers of people — both celebrities and average citizens — step forward to own their addictions, greater awareness of substance abuse as a disease of the brain continues to grow. Even the insurance industry is providing better coverage than ever before in the recognition that early detection and treatment can save lives. The Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare, also provides coverage for substance abuse treatment. As the stigma of addiction fades with every passing day, the number of people seeking help for substance abuse increases.
Addiction Doesn’t Discriminate
Perhaps the most important lesson of celebrity addiction is that addiction doesn’t discriminate. Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Academy Award and earned multiple Tony Award nominations. River Phoenix and Cory Monteith were just beginning incredible careers. Mindy McCready had a huge talent that wasn’t enough to sustain her. Not one of these stars were homeless, or had career problems, or were poor — addiction crosses all boundaries, including race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, paycheck size, and more.
The more society learns to avoid stigmatizing substance abuse, the easier it will be for people struggling with addiction to get help. Study after study demonstrates that early intervention and treatment saves lives; why wait until rock bottom when climbing out of a shallow hole is easier than scaling a steep cliff? Working within the framework of a formalized addiction recovery plan, while also being unafraid to publicly own one’s addiction, helps us all defeat shame and live healthier, more successful lifestyles.