Drug Use as a Mental Health Issue: What We Can Do

A call for our mental health culture


Mental health is a public issue not talked about, not dealt with, unexplored, avoided. Like drug use, or perhaps even more so. In the news, in social media, and in daily conversation, we hear and talk about mental health mainly to discredit someone for the lack of it. Just like we still hear and talk about drugs mainly to discredit people who use them. When in search for an explanation or culprit regarding a tragedy, if we barely scratch the surface and find even a hint of mental health issues, we are certain we don’t have to look any further… The topic of mental health evokes the figure of such a convenient public enemy.

The mind and its health are almost a socially forbidden topic, a taboo. So much so that, when health is first mentioned in a conversation, it is generally assumed as physical health. How’s your health doing lately? Good, or I’ve got a flu, or My back has been hurting lately. Oh, you mean my mental health? Of course that’s none of your business! The mind, its workings and components, including feelings and desires, is such a private, intimate issue. But instead of talking about our minds and emotions as the closest experiences to ourselves and thus the ones we are the most familiar with, we assign psychiatrists and neurologists as the only qualified experts because the brain is such a complex mystery. Or maybe it’s like, in a culture dominated by the value of freedom, nobody is allowed to question freedom of choice, or where this freedom comes from…

Whatever the reasons, this lack of public concern for mental health does no good to drug policies. The first thing a person with drug or alcohol problems needs is specialized and kind attention regarding his or her mental health issues: drug use in all its diversity can only be but one aspect of mental and emotional health. And the first thing any person needs to prevent drug or alcohol problems is, once again, specialized and kind, mental and emotional health attention. This includes early detection during childhood and adolescence, not only of disorders such as anxiety or depression, also of other risk factors such as asocial behaviour and violent environments.

Persistance on problematic drug use is a mental health issue, and needs to be addressed as such at the prevention level, at the harm reduction level, and at the treatment level. But mental health is even more stigmatized than drug use. So how do we advance the development of better mental health policies, practices, and culture?

We can shift attention to mental health as an issue broader than mental illness:

  • We can refer to mental health as an issue concerning more than our thought processes; also our emotions, our well-being in the deepest, truest sense of what we are; the state and quality of our subjective experience as human beings.
  • We can point to all the resources we have available. Not only psychiatry and psychotherapy. Human knowledge and practices everywhere have a lot to say and teach to us about mental health, as communities and as society. Maybe it has not been called mental health but Well-Being, or Knowledge, or Philosophy, or Unity with the Spirit, or Buddhism or Christianity or having the Force Be with You. The health of our spirit or, if you are an atheist, the health of our consciousness, has been our main topic of interest since we are humans.
  • And we can attend our common sense of humanity: what our shared morality can do, whether we are “specialists” or not. To identify and reduce the risks, to protect the mental health environment, and to develop it.

Mental health should not evoke mental illness. In the first place, mental health should evoke promotion. It should be taken care of when developing, applying, and measuring the outcome of policies in all areas. It should be considered in every case of human interaction.

At any level, as soon as mental health is regarded in a positive sense, this same proactive attitude will start taking care of drug issues.

September 1st edit: So I’ve changed or added a very few things —including the subtitle— and am coloring them dark cyan.

This blog entry is dedicated to Estudiantes por una política sensata de drogas capítulo México; to Peta de Aztlán in Sacramento, CA (symbolically representing all humane beings which I have met solely through social web media); and to all persons working in mental health and harm reduction. If you find it usefulplease share!

References: Promoting mental health : concepts, emerging evidence, practice : summary report / a report from the World Health Organization, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse in collaboration with the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) and the University of Melbourne. © World Health Organization 2004

Image artwork: María Sabina, by Nico Rosenfeld, in Pijama Surf



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