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Addictions stigma: What actions are you taking to eliminate it?

Substance use disorders and non-substance addictive disorders require same empathy, support and compassion as any other mental illness


January 30, 2020
By Bill Howatt

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Photo: WildPixel/Getty Images

How committed is your organization to eliminating the stigma around substance-use and non-substance-use addictive disorders in the workplace?

Statistics show  19 per cent of the workforce in Canada is at risk for being defined as a heavy alcohol drinker and  4.2 per cent of the general population is addicted to alcohol. These stats indicate the number of employees that may be at risk for experiencing stigma, but don’t include those who use cannabis or opiates, or suffer from other kinds of non-substance addictive disorders like gambling.

As the conversation on mental health continues to evolve, what’s often not discussed is substance use disorder and non-substance addictive disorders.

Substance use disorders, especially alcoholism, are too often viewed with implicit bias that results in judgment that a person has chosen to be an alcoholic. Though an individual with a mental illness may not get the genuine empathy and support they need, too often someone with a substance use disorder gets even less.

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Addiction: An outdated word leaders should avoid

One challenge with substance use disorder is that relapse is a part of the treatment process that’s often viewed by onlookers as a sign of weakness or lack of motivation. The fact is, substance use disorder and non-substance addictive disorders are hard to treat and to overcome. There’s no easy path — it requires time, support, patience and resources, regardless of the kind of addiction. However, with the right support, many people overcome substance use disorder, just like those who recover from depression and anxiety.

The word addiction, which many of us use daily, is outdated. It comes with negative connotations that can increase the risk for a person being unfairly judged and discriminated against. Leaders are advised to ensure the correct terms, such as substance use, substance dependency and non-substance addictive disorders are being used, as these can help to reduce stigma.

Substance dependency on alcoholism, opiates, cocaine or cannabis, as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), has the same protection by human rights legislation as depression and anxiety.

When discussing mental health and mental illness, senior leaders should make it clear that substance use disorders and non-substance addictive disorders like gambling require support and the same empathy and compassion as any other kind of mental illness. When they do this, they assist in eliminating the stigma, because in the world of psychology substance use disorders are a form of mental illness.

I’m not convinced that on amazing events like Bell Let’s Talk Day many people are thinking about eliminating stigma around substance use disorders and non-substance use addictive disorders. I encourage leaders to add this to their just-cause for eliminating stigma.

Substance use disorders and non-substance use addictive disorders like gambling can do the same kind of damage to a person as depression. They can ruin lives, break up families, kill dreams and people, lead to suicide, and create an economic burden on the health system.

What organizations can do

Employers can play an important role in preventing, early recognition and, when needed, treatment.

  • Ensure substance use disorders are talked about in anti-stigma campaigns.
  • Train employees and managers in the most common risk signs associated with addictive disorders. Addictions generally have three characteristics: compulsive use, loss of control and continued use regardless of the consequences.
  • Talk to employees about addictive disorders risk. Encourage employees who are concerned about their risk for an addictive disorder to complete a free screening tool like Addictive Disorders Screen (ADS-10). They can print their results, and if they have a concern can call their employee and family assistance (EFAP) representative to get support as a first step toward treatment.
  • Senior leaders and managers can take some basic training on what addictive disorders are and how to address an employee who may have a non-substance addictive disorder like gambling, or how to manage an employee who is impaired in the workplace.
  • Understand that addictive disorders don’t discriminate. Doctors, judges and CEOs can and do suffer from substance use and other kinds of addictive disorders, the same as those in blue-collar roles.
  • Addictive disorders can start out as a way to cope with psychological pain and stress. Providing employees with insight on the path to addictive disorders and training in how to improve their mental fitness can have a positive impact on reducing risk.
  • Examine and define with other leaders corporate policies for addressing substance abuse. Ensure the policies are in writing and accessible to all employees, and be firm, fair and consistent in enforcing those policies.
  • Have a plan that’s congruent with corporate policy of how to confront an employee who has an addictive disorder that’s affecting their performance and how you will offer support.
  • Determine the referral resources that are available in the community. Drug dependency organizations have excellent professionals and programs ready to help. Employee assistance plan companies have highly-skilled professionals and internal resources trained in addiction interventions.

Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR.