Mental health and addiction

Lt. Governor initiates conversation on ending stigma

Traditionally every Lieutenant Governor in Alberta is permitted a legacy project a theme that is dear to their hearts for the government and community to work together on. Current Lt. Governor Donald Ethell has chosen mental health and addiction two issues he candidly admits have hobbled his adult life.

Ethell’s own struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction following his departure from the military were the impetus for a public forum held in Edmonton on March 24 and Calgary on the March 25 titled “Ashamed: a conversation about addiction and stigma.”

As Ethell explained at the forum opening in Calgary stigma and shame prevent many addicts from understanding their problems or seeking help. He aims to change that.

“The freedom to reach out for help and support without fear of judgment or misunderstanding is invaluable” he told the 400-strong audience in the University of Calgary’s MacEwan Hall.

Addiction and mental illness are closely linked and both face strong negative stigma says Dr. Glynnis Lieb an Alberta psychologist and the executive director of the Lt. Governor’s Circle on Mental Health and Addiction. She also says many Albertans are especially vulnerable to addiction.

“It’s a province that’s got a massive transient population. You constantly have people coming in to work and leaving their families and communities behind to come here. You also have a lot of money here…. So with that this is a good market for people who are in the business of providing the things that people with addictions are looking for and it’s readily available. I think all those factors do play a role in making this a very unique situation” says Lieb.

Alcohol or substance addiction is a serious issue nation-wide. Statistics Canada estimates 10 per cent of Canadians over the age of 15 currently suffer from substance addiction. Tom Shand executive director of the Alberta arm of the Canadian Mental Health Association points out those are only the statistics for substance abuse. It is unknown how many people also have behavioural or “process” addictions such as to gambling sex work etc.

The event’s panelists stressed the importance of eliminating the stigma around addiction since few recover successfully under traditional shaming methods.

The director of medical education programs and initiatives at the Betty Ford Centre in California Joseph Skrajewski was the evenings’ keynote speaker. In an interview prior to his speech Skrajewski says many still think of addicts in stereotypical terms which are often inaccurate.

“[People] always view addiction as that gutter drunk gutter alcoholic person; homeless person… alcoholism and drug addiction doesn’t look like that. Alcoholics and drug addicts look just like you and me. They can dress the part put on a nice suit every day go to work be somewhat functional but those individuals are the ones that are dying inside. And slowly but surely I do think that addiction catches up with them if they don’t in fact seek out some sort of help” he says.

Shand adds stigmatizing and shaming addicts not only hampers their ability to obtain help it places additional obstacles on all aspects of their lives.

“All too often the word ‘stigma’ is a euphemism for discrimination. People do feel and fear stigma but there are also people just flat out discriminated against. There is a risk of people losing their jobs there is a risk of them being not on the PTA or involved in volunteer associations or being treated differently because of their addiction” says Shand.

Skrajewski says in its 30-year history the Betty Ford Centre has treated over 100000 people including him. He believes society’s current understanding of and therefore feelings about addiction are finally changing.

“Do I think people are becoming more open-minded? I do. I firmly believe that people are more [sympathetic] right now because they realize that this is a public health problem” he says. “People are viewing addiction differently now. They’re calling it a substance use disorder they’re tying it into mental health which it should be tied into and I think at the end of the day that’s all movement in the right direction.”

He points to Alberta as a leader in North America when it comes to addressing these concerns.

“They’re being very proactive in training their own people that will… spread the word that addiction is in fact treatable and that it is a disease. Albertans are definitely moving in the right direction and I think they’re being very proactive with regards to doing great work in addiction” Skrajewski says.

In addition to supporting the Lt. Governor’s Circle in 2013 the Alberta government appointed Dr. Michael Trew as the province’s first Mental Health Advocate. It is also working on creating a comprehensive mental health and addiction framework which will establish new policies and address gaps in Alberta’s treatment system.