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A discriminatory system that fails addicts

Two weeks ago a young man in Northern Ireland died of liver failure. 22 Year old Gareth Anderson had previously featured in newspapers at 19 when he had been refused a liver transplant because he had been unable to go 6 months without a drink. Tragically he clearly didn’t want to die and was obviously in a great mental health struggle. At times he had clear insight into the grave nature of his problem. “I don’t want to end my life this early”, Gareth had expressed. He was also aware of what he needed to do; “I’ll never touch another drink for the rest of my life…This is terrifying, I just want to get better and go home”. He was also determined to fight his problem “I’m going to keep on fighting and hope for the best.” Gareth attended AA and had 5 weeks in a rehab and periods of sobriety. Like so many other alcoholics he was also clearly a lovely sensitive man. Others had said of him: “He loved animals as a teenager”, “If Gareth got wages on a Friday he would spend them buying flowers for his mother and grandmother”, “He thought of everyone but himself”.

His family were loving too, his father bought a pet shop to engage Gareth’s love of animals and wanted  them to have a chance to work and spend time together. When Gareth was ill he fought his illness. At one point he even got out of his hospital bed to try and get a pint of beer. Clearly there was a titanic struggle going on in Gareth’s mind as there is for so many other alcoholics.

So my question is yet again why, when we have a clear example of someone with the mental illness of alcoholism, are we treating them as if they are stupid or unwilling and withholding life saving medical treatment?

We don’t say to Schizophrenics we are going to deny them medical treatment if they hurt themselves as a result of them being tormented by their illness. If a depressive individual tries to kill themselves we wouldn’t withhold emergency room lifesaving treatments in hospital saying that they had done this to themselves, so why on earth are we still doing this to alcoholics?

Equally ridiculous is this notion that people have to want help. We don’t say to schizophrenics or manic depressives, that they need to ‘want’ to have treatment for us to offer it to them. It would be seen as negligence to anyone with even the slightest experience of these problems. We know that people with mental illnesses typically don’t think they have a problem and frequently don’t want help. With that understanding we proactively go out and help them. We don’t wait for people with other mental illnesses to come to us so why on earth are our hospital and mental health services putting this responsibility on alcoholics?

It is a scandal that his chronic mental illness was given so little attention. It’s a scandal that medical treatment was withheld from him and it is a scandal that people were told there was nothing that could be done unless he wanted help himself. It’s time we nailed this myth once and for all. Alcoholism is a mental illness, it can be helped and interventions are very effective. Stop discriminating against a group who can’t stand up for their needs and stop lying to their families and friends telling them there is nothing that can be done when it manifestly can.

Robin Lefever

This article was originally published on robin.me and reproduced with explicit permission.

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