In his piece for New Era on 13 June, Vitalio Angula makes some great points regarding the need for de-stigmatising alcohol treatment. Nothing is to be gained from the perpetuation of the idea that seeking treatment for alcoholism is shameful and deeming it as something done only by people with an inherent character flaw. Angula urges the Namibian public to take a hard look at how they view people suffering from alcoholism, to realise that these people are not, in fact, simply “flawed” but are suffering from an actual disease. True, once alcohol has gotten under your skin – to the point where you can no longer live without it – causing you to run the risk of compromising everything you hold dear. It has become a very grave issue indeed. Moreover, changing public opinion on seeking treatment for this illness is integral to more people recovering from the disease, which ultimately has the potential to lead to a healthier, more stable society.
However, just as crucial as this de-stigmatisation process would be, it is equally (if not more) important to look at the root cause of the disease. As Angula points out, many who seek treatment for alcoholism have already hit rock bottom and view treatment as a last resort. But a great many things need to have happened until that point since alcoholism is not something that hits you overnight like the common cold. Usually, it happens gradually over several years.
Also, substance abuse, in general, does not tend to appear in a vacuum. Let’s not forget that alcohol is a drug. Research shows that many forms of substance abuse may develop from both genetic and social factors. While the possible genetic predispositions may be difficult to affect, the social factors become more important to look at.
One of the biggest problems in any given society where alcohol is legal is that alcohol is highly prevalent and widely accepted as an addition to a vast number of occasions – from weddings to funerals; from promotions to graduations. It can even be as a reward, a “treat” one might give oneself at the end of a taxing workday or the like. This means that even though efforts may be made on a national level to try to stem the flow of alcohol, large parts of the population are socialised into relating to alcohol as a boost for any occasion. According to research, alcohol is the most available, widely consumed and widely abused recreational drug. Beer, alone, is the third most popular drink worldwide – after water and tea. The use of it is so prevalent; when you are among those abstaining from alcohol (for any given reason), you are immediately looked upon as suspicious, a strange creature breaking the social norm. You’re likely to be subjected to questions of whether or not you have a “problem”, be ridiculed or even ostracised. There is clear stigmatisation at this end of alcohol consumption (or the lack thereof). It seems that being faced with a teetotaller, drinkers become uncomfortable – almost as though their drinking is highlighted. Misery loves company!
If we want to take a closer look at what other factors, besides availability, might contribute to habitual overconsumption of alcohol, we may look to the specific context of Namibia and allow it to be a microcosm of our examples. Here, we can find any number of reasons why people would develop alcohol abuse issues and alcoholism. From the stress of feeling powerless in the face of poverty while trying to provide for your family, to the ghost of generational trauma caused by colonisation, oppression and war - to inherent mental afflictions such as depression, trauma, etc.
These are only some of the factors that may play a role in an individual developing an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. In the case of dealing with the effects of trauma, such as PTSD – which, for instance, is very common among former soldiers and civilians who have survived the war – self-medication with alcohol and/or other substances is very common.
Moreover, in a society where interpersonal violence is highly prevalent for many different reasons, trauma may also rear its ugly as an effect. It might not be spoken about openly or frequently, but situations such as rape, child abuse being abuse, gender-based violence cause trauma. When there is a general negative societal attitude toward therapy, it becomes difficult for people living in abuse or who have endured traumatic events to seek help for fear of stigmatisation. Furthermore, if you have a situation where the mental health care system is severely underfunded and fundamentally unavailable to the general populace unless you have the money to seek private care, these afflictions may go untreated and the negative societal effects may escalate exponentially.
In the end, it becomes a vicious cycle; a society dealing with many individuals suffering from different forms of trauma where treatment is scarce and looked down upon, which commonly results in self-medication of alcohol. This may lead to alcoholism, which is, in itself, stigmatized, so alcoholism may go untreated, causing further harm and further trauma.
Yes, the stigma around alcohol treatment addiction must be broken, but if the underlying problems are not also dealt with, getting sober is like putting a band-aid on an oil leak. Soon enough, it will come off and you will grapple with the same problems all over again.