According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 10.2% of people over the age of 12 in the United States have used an illicit drug in the past month.
The prevalence of drug abuse in our country is at an alarming rate, but the way we have treated those who have issues with drug dependence and abuse is even more alarming.
Viewing the drug addiction problem that we have as an event that warrants a "war on drugs" and a terrible attitude about how we treat addicts has become the status quo in the United States. It has led to mandatory minimums and sentencing that is sometimes longer than those that are handed out to murderers and rapists. It has led to botched care and inappropriate pathways that inevitably land drug addicts back in prison, when they should be in a health care facility.
It is imperative that we begin viewing drug addiction not as a disgusting lifestyle, but as a mental illness.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drug addiction can be viewed as a mental illness because of how most illicit drugs affect the brain. These substances release toxins and chemicals to the brain that cause the brain to rearrange the priorities and needs. As a result, people act abnormally, and their personality alters.
Furthermore, the DSM, which is the handbook that psychologists use to diagnose and define mental disorders, has a full section about drug dependence and abuse. In this section, the classic symptoms of drug abusers are laid out clearly, as well as a detailed description of how they affect the brain.
Many psychologists and schools of thought within psychology recognize drug abuse as a mental disorder. So why does America have such a problem viewing it this way? Why do we socially and legally persecute those whose lives are overrun by chemicals?
Our current strategy for dealing with drug addicts is to stick them in prison so we don't have to think about them and our responsibility to treat them like the ill people they are. Putting drug addicts in prison only escalates the likelihood that they will have more access to drugs and lack of mental health care that would significantly help with their addiction.
The truth is clear. We would be much better served if we began treating drug addicts with compassion, understanding, and adequate health care. Our current system isn't working; we aren't taking care of our citizens. Drug addiction IS a mental illness and should be treated as such.
How can we be a country that claims to stand for all, when we can't even stand for those who are ill in our country?
The status quo must change.