Earlier this month, actor Nelsan Ellis, best known for his role on HBO’s True Blood, died from complications due to alcohol withdrawal. His death is resonating through Hollywood and reigniting the conversation about the stigma of drug and alcohol dependency that prevents so many from getting the help they need. Ellis is one in a parade of addicts, famous and not, that lived with addiction for years without disclosing it even to their closest loved ones through fear of addiction. Although the treatment community has made significant inroads in changing the perception of addiction to that of disease rather than moral failing, thousands of those battling substance abuse still feel too much shame to ask for help.
In a recent interview with Texas Public Radio regarding Ellis’ passing, author and columnist Neil Steinberg discusses how, even in death, addiction is the disease that many families don’t want to name or even acknowledge. Last year, nearly 60,000 Americans died from drug overdose; it’s time to start recognizing this disease for what it is: a public health issue that can affect victims of all ages. This may require macro and micro change at various levels, from how regard the obvious inebriated transient we pass on the street in everyday life to the way we view treatment practices and addiction-related incarceration rates.
Many addicts may even be able to look past the everyday social stigma associated with chemical dependency; however, when this stigma affects real policy, it can be next to impossible for patients to get help from their insurance companies or other sources to pay for substance abuse treatment. It’s also worth considering that, in our current political climate, we’re in more danger than we have been in a long time of backsliding into punitive and counterproductive ways of dealing with addiction. As the United States keeps hitting record rates of fatal overdoses, it’s time to put stigma in the rearview and come up with sensible and lasting solutions.