Shattering the Stigma of Addiction

New Rollins programs aim to treat, prevent, and shed light on a misunderstood disease.

Too often, it seems, accounts of tragedies related to addiction are swept under the rug. This includes colleges and universities, which by necessity must protect their images as safe and secure havens for their students.

And yet, drug and alcohol addiction has become epidemic across the nation, and populations at colleges and universities are not immune. One person dies every 19 minutes from a drug overdose in the U.S., according to the Center For Disease Control and Prevention. Drug deaths in Florida’s Orange and Osceola counties alone increased 26 per cent between 2013 and 2014, with the medical examiner’s office reporting most are attributed to heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl. Most of the 209 deaths were adults in their 20s and 30s.

Recognizing the need to play a role in combatting the growing epidemic of addiction, Rollins’ Office of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) provides alcohol education classes to students bi-weekly; an Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drug (ATOD) group twice a week for students who wish to moderate their substance use; and a Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS), which provides two individual substance abuse intervention sessions. In addition, as of last fall, CAPS sponsors a weekly Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting in the Knowles Memorial Chapel.

Rollins has also established new positions and programs designed to provide awareness and support for students, faculty, and staff who are suffering from addiction. In addition to devoting a full-time position to substance abuse counseling, the College has also established a position dedicated to educating the community about addiction and a range of other health issues.

Following the trend of many colleges and universities across the country, Rollins is also in the planning stages of establishing a campus recovery program. Renée Treviranus, who joined Rollins’ Wellness Center last fall as a full-time substance abuse counselor and who is spearheading this effort, says the goal of the program will be to identify the needs of the students struggling with any sort of addiction or drug or alcohol abuse, as well to assist with relapse prevention.

“We want this to be a place where students feel safe and welcome—we provide a non-judgmental, confidential atmosphere,” she says. “If you fall off the path and you’re gone for six weeks or six months, we will still be here. ”

Part of the awareness campaign will focus on educating the community on issues surrounding addiction, including the negative connotation of the word “addict.”

For most people, merely the word addict conjures up a social taboo, a stigma that comes from generations of teaching that drugs are bad—and therefore people who do drugs are bad.

According to Treviranus, those suffering from substance abuse or addiction are typically seen in a negative or disparaging way, and labeling them with the word addict only further perpetuates the stigma. “There’s a judgment that goes along with the word addict,” she says. “It’s interesting how society will develop an idea of what an addict looks like or what an alcoholic looks like.”

And while the word is problematic for others to use, it’s important for individuals to identify for themselves what works best for them in their own recovery. Many are familiar with the addiction intervention programs AA and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), and the latter’s motto, “Once an addict, always an addict.” These organizations have shown to be highly successful in helping their members cope with and sometimes escape substance abuse.

“For some people in treatment, identifying their former behavior using words like ‘addict’ can be effective,” she says. “However, for family members, community members, and members of the individual’s social support network, it is vital that we do not use such words that convey judgment or make assumptions.”

A current Rollins student, who wishes to remain anonymous, expressed that sentiment. She explained that, although she refers to herself as an addict as a tool in her recovery, she worries that referring to herself that way to others will conjure up a negative image of her, even though she’s been sober for almost 10 years.

In reality, there is no face to addiction—mothers, teachers, athletes, physicians, and businessmen alike are all at risk. Recent studies indicate that the typical heroin user is from a middle-class, suburban background and started out recreationally using prescription painkillers. Approximately six million American children have at least one parent who is abusing drugs and/or alcohol, and studies show that children from wealthier families are more likely to take addictive drugs than those from poorer families.

Unfortunately, Treviranus explains, when people think of addiction, they dwell on the social taboo rather than the underlying human condition at its root. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a theory of human needs used in psychological studies, identifies that we all have a need to belong, to feel a part of and accepted by others, to love and be loved. When a fundamental need isn’t filled, people search to find comfort anywhere they can find it, and drugs and alcohol are often easy substitutes. And that’s why education about addiction should focus on the internal human needs that lead people down that path.

“People need to understand that addiction starts slowly and isn’t simply a matter choice,” she says. By the time a substance abuser develops a full-blown addiction, the drug has taken over the user’s brain and the struggle of managing day-to-day becomes the primary need; the user goes from being proactive to reactive.

“The brain craves the drug at any cost—it’s no longer an option to just stop,” Treviranus says.

More and more, substance-abuse treatment professionals are calling addiction a crisis of public health—a matter more encompassing than the illicit and criminal behavior that often accompanies it. “Beginning this conversation across college campuses, across the country, is the first step toward eliminating the taboo—the judgment that you’re just a criminal, just a felon, just an addict,” Treviranus says. “It all comes back to the word ‘addict.’ ”

Hopefully, over time these programs will begin changing peoples’ perspectives.

“The way I see it, our behaviors don’t necessarily reflect who we are as human beings,” Treviranus says. “If someone ends up developing an addiction to heroin or Adderall or alcohol, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re an ‘alcoholic’ or an ‘addict.’ They might be addicted to the substance, but it’s not who they are. I know a lot of people dealing with substance abusers who come to me with the question, ‘How do I act around these people? How should I treat them?’ Well, I say, treat them like human beings.”