By Mahmud Isa Yola
A notification popped on my screen minutes after the NDLEA Twitter space was declared open for questions and observations on a fateful Friday. For the uninitiated, NDLEA Twitter Space is a weekly broadcast I co-host with Mr. Femi Babafemi, the agency’s Director of Media and Advocacy, every Friday on the agency’s official Twitter handle, @ndlea_nigeria, to broaden public enlightenment on drug-related issues in Nigeria.
Without hesitation, I quickly clicked on the popped-up notification, and I discovered that it was a private message from a Twitter user. In summation, the anonymous user asserted that she resides in Kano and that she is battling with the habit of consuming illicit drugs. She added that she has made up her mind to stop, but she needs professional help in doing so, and her biggest challenge is that she cannot come out and speak about her addiction due to the negative attitude of the general public towards drug users, especially women.
She compared her addiction to a grenade, the pin of which would be removed if she sought professional help. She also asserted that she had kept her drug addiction a secret from her family and would like it to remain so. After stating these, she asked that I keep her identity a secret (for fear of stigmatization) and read her message on the space while she listens to the solution that the panel of discussants would proffer to her predicament. I did read the message, and she received advice on what to do right away.
I can’t think of a more apt scenario to illustrate how social stigma actively impedes people with substance dependency from accessing counseling, treatment, and reintegration than this young lady’s case. Apparently, she has made up her mind to leave behind the habit of taking illicit drugs, and she understands that to do that, she needs professional help from experts. Her chances of receiving treatment and rehabilitation are minimal, which is unfortunate because of a variety of issues, including social stigma and the ensuing discrimination associated with being recognised as a drug user in society.
Stigma, according to Wikipedia, is a Greek word that originally referred to a type of tattoo or marking that was cut or burned into the skin of people with criminal records, slaves, or those who were thought to be traitors in order to clearly identify them as allegedly flawed or morally impure individuals. Social stigma refers to the disapproval of or prejudice against a person or group because of perceived traits that set them apart from other members of society. Social stigma, as it relates to addiction, is the holding of strong, detrimental attitudes, prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination frequently associated with substance misuse and addiction.
Stigma affects all of us, and nearly everyone has felt stigmatised or has stigmatised others at some point in their lives. In a study done by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the general public was more likely to have negative attitudes towards those dealing with drug addiction than those who were dealing with mental illness. This therefore drives home the fact that drug addicts are the most susceptible to stigmatisation in society.
The particular reason for the circumstance is that drug abuse has dire social and moral repercussions, even when the person is undergoing treatment, due to its stigma. Drug addiction has typically been seen as sinful or the result of poor self-control. And relapsing after treatment is frequently and ignorantly misconceived as a lack of willpower to stop drug use. These grossly inaccurate opinions exacerbate stigma and make it harder for people to get essential care.
In the world of drug addiction, stigma is the devil, trampling victims’ rights in a variety of ways, including mockery, the inability to access both conventional and non-conventional treatment, difficulties in job employment, social humiliation, interpersonal rejection, devaluing thoughts about oneself, seclusion, and/or avoidance of intimate contacts. These, summed up, greatly affect the user and frustrate recovery.
What is the way out?
Empathy is the antidote to stigma. In the absence of empathy, stigma creeps in. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes or to understand their emotional condition. It serves as the cornerstone of all successful relationships, whether personal or professional. If you cannot imagine how another person is feeling in a given situation, you are at a significant disadvantage and may not behave appropriately towards them.
Empathy is a critical component of rehabilitation and must be fostered by addicts, their loved ones, and experts above all else. Addicts themselves need to have an empathic outlook on their interactions with other people. Addiction is a long-term illness that alters the brain’s chemistry and, consequently, a person’s priorities. This creates a pattern of egotistical conduct and concentrates all mental energy on locating and taking one’s preferred substance. When suffering from a substance use illness, it is practically impossible to recall the needs of children, parents, siblings, co-workers, or friends.
Furthermore, there is a fundamental need to step up institutional and social initiatives to combat the stigma associated with drug usage. The National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, NDLEA, established a toll-free helpline: 080010203040 in response to these demands. The centre offers a safety bubble for users who ordinarily cannot access the conventional treatment services at established rehabilitation centers due to poverty, social stigma, and the subsequent discrimination attached to being an identified drug user in society, among other factors.
Mahmud Isa Yola writes from the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, NDLEA