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 in Ottawa. “I think that the fact that these questions and opportunities and dialogue are being raised is beneficial.
“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,” Jesseman 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 Toronto city councillors approved a motion to have him take a leave of absence.
His family has backed up his assertions and agreed with his decision not to resign or take a leave, despite a chorus of voices – from political friends and foes alike to members of the public – encouraging him to do just that.
Dr. Mark Ujjainwalla, an Ottawa addiction-medicine physician, said Ford’s extreme behaviour – including the obscenity-laden death threat secretly captured on video – is in line with many of the signs associated with alcohol and often drug abuse.
But the 25-year veteran of addiction 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.
Dr. Tim Stockwell, director of the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. in Victoria, said Ford’s travails have certainly raised Canadians’ awareness about alcohol and drug addiction – but in a mixed way.
“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, 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.”
Stockwell said the ridiculing send-ups of Ford by late-night talk-show hosts have also fuelled the stigma felt by people with substance-abuse issues: “It’s making fun of somebody who had a drug and alcohol problem, having already assumed that they do.
“Just pause before you make jokes about somebody who may be suffering with a drug or alcohol problem. 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.”