Actor Cory Monteith often spoke frankly about his ongoing struggles with addiction, acknowledging it had complicated his high school years and that in many ways he was lucky to be alive. With news that Mr. Monteith died of an overdose involving alcohol and heroin, his passing is cause to reflect on the challenges addiction poses to millions of individuals, their families, and communities worldwide.
Many of us do not include handsome 'Glee' actors in our conception of the addicted individual. Indeed, for some, Mr. Monteith's sunny disposition, talent, and fairytale rise to fame stands in harsh contrast to the seemingly haggard faces and unenviable lives of those that populate street-level drug scenes like that in Vancouver's poverty-stricken Downtown Eastside.
This vast social and economic gulf between Mr. Monteith and those that face not only addiction but homelessness too begs the question if someone like Mr. Monteith - with stature and a wealth of resources at his disposal - was not able to conquer his addiction, why do we still express disdain for those individuals of lesser means with multiple, competing health issues who also "fail" to recover?
Obstacles to addiction treatment vary widely from country to country, city to city, even from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. But two challenges that remain constant across diverse settings are the inadequacy of specialized clinical addiction training and a perpetual and crippling lack of treatment facilities.
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These constraints are crucial, because inadequate or inaccessible care means many people will never get the evidence-based care they need, and will instead be left to contend with overwhelming consequences of untreated addiction - among them the loss of family ties, employment, and too often, premature death from overdoses or blood-borne diseases like HIV or Hepatitis C.
Thankfully, B.C.'s provincial government and local health authorities have redoubled their efforts to address this healthcare gap.
Over the next five years, the St. Paul's Hospital Goldcorp Fellowship in Addiction Medicine will provide evidence-based clinical training for 20 addiction medicine doctors to help fight and manage addiction with the most advanced tools available - whether on the streets of the Downtown Eastside or in the suites of the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel.
Later this year, a network of researchers will launch a centre for clinical trials focusing specifically on testing cutting-edge addiction treatments, a research enterprise that has the potential to produce game-changing therapies that could influence how we treat addiction the world over.
For this work to be successful, however, we as a society must accept that addiction should be treated as an illness like diabetes or cancer - and not as a moral failing deserving of stigma or prison time. Whether addicts are movie stars or people living on the street, those that face this illness require our compassion. Without it, efforts to connect drug-dependent individuals with evidence-based care will be for naught, police and jail guards will continue to be the ones tasked to handle those with addiction who need help most.
Rather than punishing and shaming people like Mr. Monteith and his less affluent counterparts, we need to ensure that governments and health authorities provide full and ready access to addiction treatment services. As a society, we need to recognize that the spiral of addiction, stigma, and the tragedy of premature deaths can be averted through a compassionate response that prioritizes evidence-based clinical treatment. Once this is done, will we finally be able to heal those among us, at all levels of society, who need our help.
So far, they have only received our scorn.