By Dr David Laing Dawson
Folk wisdom tells us that with alcoholism and addiction, at several points in the spectrum of these afflictions, there lies choice. Free will is at play. The law generally agrees. Drunkenness is not grounds for “not responsible due to mental illness.” Even science and rehab experience agree. All treatment and rehabilitation programs for addiction and alcoholism are founded on a principle of choice and free will.
No doubt alcoholics and addicts develop a sort of tunnel vision. The big picture is lost to them. The effect they are having on others is lost to them. The ability to plan beyond the next few hours is lost to them. Reality for the addict becomes a set of shadings and lies he tells himself and others.
Scholars and philosophers can debate the myth, reality or limitations of free will, but the concept is in itself a foundation of community, of organized society. To function communally we must assume that individuals generally have free will and are responsible for their actions. We are careful and strict when we allow exceptions to this rule, as we must be. Science and compassion inform these decisions.
Our courts debate these decisions every day. The age at which one can be tried in court as an adult rather than a child has been changing and varies from state to state. At what level of mental development should we assume a mentally handicapped person is fully responsible for his crime? Harvey Weinstein will claim he is a sex addict and couldn’t help himself; the prosecutor will point out he is a serial predator who chose to debase women over and over because he could get away with it.
Within our long history we have only recently absolved people of personal, moral responsibility for falling ill with recognizable physical diseases. Though not totally, for we still expect them to assume some responsibility for working to get better, take their medicines, and do the things that prevent illness in the first place. e.g stop smoking, get vaccinations, use condoms.
It is only more recently, within two hundred years, that we began to include severe mental illnesses in the body of afflictions for which people should not be held morally responsible. Nobody chooses at any point in their lives to become schizophrenic, bipolar, depressed, have regular panic attacks. These are illnesses. Nobody chooses for these illnesses to continue.
Folk wisdom regarding who with mental illness should be absolved of moral and personal responsibility (and therefore not punished if a crime is committed) remains fluid. The question is often decided, in the public’s mind, by our visceral reaction to the crime itself.
But at least without horrendous crimes occurring, folk wisdom generally, today, accepts that severe mental illnesses are indeed illnesses and no personal decision making is involved.
But this is always a tenuous belief.
Which is why it was such a setback for the public’s attitude toward mental illness when our institutions for addictions and for psychiatric illnesses were merged, and many of the philosophies for “treating” addictions slipped over to mental illness. I could argue that this merger has set us back a hundred years and allowed us to believe (or by inaction accept) that many with mental illness choose to live on the street or cycle in and out of our jails. (I put treatment for addictions here in quotation marks because there is no treatment as such. All programs for addictions are forms of organized browbeating to quit, and then to stay abstinent. Whereas we actually have effective medical treatments for severe mental illness.)
I might even argue (with the exception of it providing more resources for addictions) this merging of the services was also a disfavor for society, addicts, and alcoholics. For when we absolve people of responsibility for their behaviour, we give it wings.
Hence the astounding human behaviour we see today in all our communities in which a person is offered in a back alley or a house party a substance that promises to alleviate any suffering (emotional or physical) for a few hours, maybe cause the experience of a little euphoria, but which has a 30% chance of being lethal – and still that substance is greedily taken and snorted or injected.
Conflating mental illness and addictions has caused a paradoxical shift. It has allowed us to absolve addicts of personal responsibility for their addictions and, at least tacitly, blame the mentally ill for their illnesses.
Though I am in favour of suing, for billions of dollars, the pharmaceutical company that lied about and promoted oxycontin/oxycocet/oxycodone and then pouring that money into “treatment” and prevention of drug addiction.