11/13/2013 04:04 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Rob Ford Drugs, Alcohol Use Raising, Feeding Stigma Of Addiction, Experts Say

TORONTO - Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's admitted alcohol and drug use have shone a glaring spotlight on addiction and substance abuse. But have Ford's troubles raised the kind of awareness that is beneficial or harmful to the public's understanding of the disease and those struggling with their own booze and drug-abuse demons?

"I have never seen the issue of substance abuse get this much profile," said Rebecca Jesseman, a research and policy analyst at the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.

"I think that the fact that these questions and opportunities and dialogue are being raised is beneficial," Jesseman said from Ottawa, observing that public discourse helps get the message across that support and treatment services are available for people dealing addiction.

"What's important is to ensure that the light in which those discussions are being held keeps in mind the fact that substance abuse is a very real problem and it's a problem that is helped by our colleagues, our friends, by our family members," she said. "And it's something that touches all Canadians."

Ford has repeatedly denied he has an alcohol or drug addiction, and he did so again Wednesday as city councillors overwhelmingly approved a motion to have him take a leave of absence. However, the 37-5 motion is non-binding.

His family has backed up his assertions and agreed with his decision not to resign or take an official leave, despite a chorus of voices — from political friends and foes alike to members of the public — encouraging him to do just that.

"I can assure you I am not an alcoholic, I am not a drug addict," Ford defiantly told council during Wednesday's sometimes raucous debate of the motion. "Have I drank, have I done drugs? Yes, I have, but it's self-inflicted. ... The reason I drank or did drugs was not out of stress, it was out of sheer stupidity."

But Ottawa addiction specialist Dr. Mark Ujjainwalla said Ford's bouts of extreme behaviour — including the obscenity-laden death threat secretly captured on video — is in line with many of the signs associated with alcohol dependence, and often drug abuse.

The 25-year veteran of substance-abuse treatment doesn't think the Ford saga has done much for the public perception of addiction or those caught in its relentless grip.

"It has done absolutely nothing except to make it worse, because people are saying this guy's crazy, he's on cocaine, he's a bad person," said Ujjainwalla, whose Recovery Ottawa clinic provides treatment for people hooked on opioids.

"The way I see it is these people are ill. They're not bad people trying to get good, they're sick people trying to get well that need our help. And it's our responsibility to educate the average person, which is what I'm trying to do with my clinic ... but I can tell you it's a hard sell."

Despite substance abuse affecting every segment of society — Ujjainwalla has treated virtually every profession, from priests and pilots to politicians and physicians — there is often a public attitude that alcoholics and drug addicts "deserve everything they get," he said.

Instead of a punitive response, he said what's needed are more treatment facilities across the country "for people who are ill."

"And you have to have champions," he said, citing celebrities like Newfoundland actress-comedian Mary Walsh, who has admitted to alcohol abuse, "Friends" actor Matthew Perry and British funnyman Russell Brand, who have spoken of their struggles with alcohol and drug addiction.

"So people have to be willing to speak up, and say: 'You know what, I'm an alcoholic, I'm a recovering drug addict. It's true, I wasn't well at the time, but because of the help that I got ... I'm back on my feet and doing well, and I'm helping donate or fundraise for a new treatment centre' — just like you would if you had a heart attack or cancer, all these people want to help out.

"You don't see a telethon for alcoholism or drug dependency. Yet so many people are ravaged by it."

While Ford's travails have certainly raised Canadians' awareness about alcohol and drug addiction, Dr. Tim Stockwell said it's been a mixed blessing.

"The good part I'm hearing is a lot of compassion, even if people are assuming correctly or not that he does have a serious problem with alcohol and drugs," said Stockwell, director of the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. in Victoria, who was in Toronto on Wednesday evaluating addiction harm-reduction programs in the city.

"A lot of people are coming out and talking about it compassionately or sympathetically that he needs help."

But Stockwell believes many people have, without first-hand knowledge, made stereotypical judgments about the extent of Ford's drinking and need for treatment, which is "very stigmatizing."

"I think the message that comes over very clearly is that if somebody has this kind of problem, they're unfit for work," he said. "So this is telling anybody who has this kind of problem (that they're) not a proper person to be trusted and that you can deal with."

Being exposed to messages that sensationalize an abuse problem — or paint it as a chosen behaviour — can lead to further feelings of humiliation, agreed Jesseman, which may contribute to denial of excessive alcohol or drug use or wanting to hide the behaviour from others.

"Because, of course, nobody wants to be personally associated with a behaviour or a label that is being demonized," she said.

Stockwell said ridiculing send-ups of Ford by late-night talk-show hosts have also been harmful to people with substance-abuse issues, likely fuelling the shame that's a common companion to not being able to control drinking or drug use.

"Just pause before you make jokes about somebody who may be suffering with a drug or alcohol problem," he said. "Think about the impact that might have on other people suffering these problems who aren't quite so high-profile and what that might do to their feelings of self-worth."

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