Jenny Lau/the Gauntlet

Common perceptions of addiction ignore causes

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Western culture has an incomplete understanding of the science behind addictions. Addicts are portrayed as engaging in behaviours that are self-inflicted, freely choosing their lifestyles and unworthy of empathy according to the award-winning book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Dr Gabor Maté.

Although we should hold people accountable for the decisions that lead to dependence, it’s important to view the physical state of addiction as an affliction rather than an ongoing series of choices. It would be prudent to understand the mechanism of how these behaviours are shaped and reinforced by the brain.

Consider that addicts are willing to sell their bodies and dignities, suffer abandonment by their family and friends, risk infections and diseases and tolerate the threats of homelessness. Addiction supersedes even the survival instinct, which should indicate the level of dependency and loss of control it creates.

The issue of dependence has received more attention than ever before. Using evidence-based research to support his arguments, Maté seeks to shift the question society asks addicts from, “why are you addicted?” to “what is the source of the pain?”

Addiction is self-medication for pain. Maté reports that current research in neuroscience has identified a section of the brain, the Anterior Cingulate Cortex that responds to physical trauma. But researchers have also identified activation in this area of the brain when people suffer emotional pain, social seclusion and isolation.

Doctors prescribe opiates and pain medication to alleviate the physical pain of a fractured bone, which is usually considered acceptable. But people with addictions use substances, like opiates such as heroin or cocaine; depressants such as alcohol or cannabis; or amphetamines like meth and ecstasy to alleviate emotional trauma are vilified and shunned.

Emotional trauma is often misunderstood and trauma is not always recognized. Issues such as bullying in elementary school and micro-aggressions in the workplace may seem unimportant, but these experiences are cumulative. The Adverse Childhood Experiences study funded by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention frames the issue of emotional trauma through a statistical lens. Such experiences include emotional or sexual abuse, violence and addiction in the family, absentee parents or the stress of poverty. With a sample size of 26,229 in five American states, 59.4 per cent of respondents reported fitting the criteria for one adverse childhood experience and 8.7 per cent reported five or more.

Those respondents with low educational attainment were significantly more likely to be listed as having five or more traumatic childhood experiences, compared to those with higher education levels. Adverse childhood experiences exponentially increase a person’s chances of becoming an addict later on in life. For example, a male child with six adverse experiences is 46 times more likely to develop addiction to injectable substances.

The brain learns by association from past experiences. We anticipate future events to decide how we will alleviate stress from our bodies. Chemical addiction is “Plan B” when there was no support for development of a healthy “Plan A.”

With this information, what can you do? The University of Calgary is inviting students, staff and faculty to take part in Mental Health Awareness Week during Oct. 7–12. As a partnership between the Students’ Union, the SU Wellness Centre, several departments, student clubs and external communities, Mental Health Awareness Week is an opportunity to reduce stigmatizing barriers about mental health. There will be related activities, events and workshops happening across campus. Highlights include “Addictions 101,” an interactive exhibit and education campaign happening Thursday Oct. 10 in the north courtyard and “Outrun the Stigma,” the first mental health awareness run in Western Canada on Saturday Oct. 12.