Community Healing from Substance Use and Mental Health Disorders
A Whole-Wellness System of Recovery
When we think of addiction recovery, we tend to think of individuals being sent away for institutionalized treatment, ostracized and isolated from their loved ones.
For decades we’ve been treating families as an afterthought. Family treatment is an add-on, optional service for those who want to be involved in their loved one’s recovery.
The presumption, fuelled by old, worn out stigma, is that a person suffering from substance use disorder should be thrown into an institution, ejected from their community, and somehow magically transformed by a miracle treatment cure back into a warm, caring human being again. When they stop being a jerk, then they can be let back into society again.
It’s like a hospital telling someone with a broken arm, “You broke it, get away from here and go fix it, THEN come back and see us.”
What if it is actually the other way around?
It would be ridiculous to expect someone with cancer, Parkinson’s or diabetes to heal themselves and ‘get over it’. Science tells us Substance Use Disorder (SUD) is a highly treatable disease. So, like any other chronic illness, why would we expect someone to heal themselves from this disorder?
Not Just Birth Families
Successful treatment of substance use disorder requires healing of the entire community.
When we think of family, we think of family of origin: mother, father, kids, perhaps aunts, uncles and cousins. According to Mirriam-Webster dictionary, family can also mean “a group of people united by certain convictions or a common affiliation : FELLOWSHIP”.
Family is not just about the people to whom you are birth-related.
Family = Community
The Ripple Effect
The effects of substance use disorder reach far beyond what we usually imagine. It is obvious it would affect family with whom a substance user lives, friends, co-workers, and the people they see every day.
But if we think it through a little more, the ripple effect fans out to touch the lives of countless others.
Imagine someone with Substance Use Disorder (SUD) drinking all night. They’ve been getting into progressively more trouble, their physical health is deteriorating. Their relationship with their partner and children becomes more dysfunctional as time passes. They go to work, but can’t function without sneaking more booze. The shaking keeps them from doing even the most menial tasks of their job. Mental health deteriorates and the person begins acting out.
So, who is affected?
- Ripple 1: The kids are scared of dad’s or mom’s drunken, angry outbursts, and go to school withdrawn and scared.
- Ripple 2: They get bullied by other kids at school, or act out and become the bully.
- Ripple 3: Teachers have trouble teaching them, and school administration becomes involved.
- Ripple 4: Teachers go home disturbed and preoccupied by their student’s exposure to drunken violence. They’re up all night worrying, and are angry with the parent.
- Ripple 5: The spouse and family of the teacher misses out on quality time with them.
- Ripple 6: Outside of school, recruiters who seek these kinds of kids sweep them up in lifestyles of substance abuse, theft and more.
- Ripples 7, 8, 9 and 10: At work, co-workers can’t do their jobs that depend on the person with the addiction doing theirs, don’t want to be physically close because of booze smell, belligerent behaviour makes workplace unbearable, different levels of management involved. Customers aren’t happy. They tell others, spread negative, sometimes damaging reviews across social media, the company as a whole suffers.
What about those affected by a loved one’s addiction? Their son or daughter is out all night. Dad waits up all night, losing sleep, is worried. He either calls in sick or heads in to work distracted, preoccupied. His work is safety-sensitive, and his distraction places him and his colleagues at risk. Mom was up all night fighting with her spouse. They arise to an emotionally ice-cold morning in the home. She heads to work also distracted and preoccupied. Her performance suffers, putting her customers at risk. And they are not even the one with SUD!
This could go on ad infinitum.
SUD (addiction) is clearly not just an individual’s problem. In our search to provide the most effective treatment with a recovery-oriented system of care, what if we could look at this a different way?
What if these aren’t unwell substance users within their families and communities? What if these are unwell families who have a substance user as part of their community?
What happens when family is healing concurrently, or even first?
Stigma Hurts Recovery
A common reaction to substance users is that they are ‘scum’, selfish, uncaring, and can just snap out of it any time they choose to. They don’t need to be enabled. They need tough love. Extremely tough. Or, they need to get as far away as possible. Ostracized.
The fact is, this NIMBY attitude (Not In My Back Yard) does not help. In fact, it feeds the substance user’s disorder, entrenching them deeper into their downward spiral. Feeding off each other, both are pulled downward, out of reach of healing. This deep-rooted stigma does not encourage wellness. It fuels the root of the problem: we/they thinking.
Stigma prevents people from getting what they need to be well.
Contemporary Understanding of Substance Use Disorder/Addiction
In current, leading-edge addiction treatment, those who hang on to stigma are being left behind in the dust. They’re keeping the problem going with this antiquated thinking. Science and knowledge of SUD and treatment is long past that way of thinking.
We know, scientifically, that substance use disorder causes disregulation of the nervous system, and creates what we know as the hijacked brain. They are literally stuck. Depending on the substance and personal circumstances, just snapping out of it or choosing a better life may physically be impossible. This is unquestionably a disease, a disorder.
What if we, as a family in community, use the same compassion we would toward sufferers of other physical afflictions? What if we treated the family and community at the same time, or even before, the person with the substance use disorder?
What if we shifted our thinking, restructuring our language to reflect a spirit of healing for the whole community?
What if we shared a parallel experience of healing with the substance user in our midst, raising up the entire community out of the rippled effects of this tragic illness?
Witnessing the effects of substance use disorder can be a traumatic experience for everyone in the community. And, the reactions of other community members, in turn, can cause trauma outward into the community.
With willingness to release rigidity of thought, approach and language, we can collectively heal not only from addiction, but all the rippled consequences on a local and global level.
Substance Use Disorder is chronic, and often deadly.
At Aurora, we’re using every modality at our disposal to keep moving forward in the treatment of substance use disorder and addiction.