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Shetland Councillor opens up on dangers of stigma around addiction

Publication: Shetland News

A Lerwick councillor who is in recovery from alcohol addiction has spoken up on the danger stigma can play in the community.

Lerwick councillor John Fraser| Photo by Shetland News | Licensed for use on Scottish Beacon | All rights reserved

John Fraser told a meeting of Shetland’s integration joint board last Thursday that people have a responsibility to recognise addiction as an illness.

The Lerwick South councillor said he has been in recovery for more than four years, but during his active addiction, he went to sleep “wishing and praying” not see another day – with his feeling of self-worth “non-existent”.

But he said it was the people who did not view him with stigma that gave him the support into recovery.

Now, Fraser works alongside his council work for the Castle Craig addiction treatment facility near Edinburgh as a recovery advocate.

The topic was raised during discussions of the Shetland alcohol and drug partnership’s annual report for 2022/23.

NHS Shetland’s alcohol and drug development officer Wendy McConnachie said it was no exaggeration that “stigma kills”, given that it can prevent people from accessing help.

She explained there tended to be three stands of stigma – from the public, professional services and within someone.

McConnachie said people have found it difficult in a small community like Shetland to move on from their past. She said:

“We can be looked at more around where we’ve come from and not who we are or where we’re going.”

The officer said one thing which could help is accepting that substance use is a “health need” and not a lifestyle choice.

“It’s not a choice to enter into criminality; it’s a health need,” McConnachie said.

“There are reasons for substance use.”

Fraser said he experienced stigma from people who said he was a “pathetic washed-up alcoholic…it’s his own fault”.

“But nobody chooses to live like that,” the councillor said.

He also said some people took pity on him – saying he was a “poor soul” or “what a loss”.

Fraser said he believed what was said – leading to his lack of self-worth.

He said while he felt “absolutely worthless”, he did not have the resolve to follow through with any suicidal ideologies.

Fraser said being in recovery is a reality, with people from all sorts of backgrounds now living thriving lives after addictions.

The councillor, who is the vice-chair of the health and social care integration joint board, said his life is now “beyond my wildest dreams”.

He told the meeting that it was important to view addiction as an illness and “treat it with the love and the care and the compassion and the empathy and kindness that we’d treat anybody else with any other form of illness”.

He said addiction “affects everybody and takes no prisoners”.

Fraser added that if people continue to apportion blame or try to say it is an individual’s choice, “effectively you’re complicit – and sorry to be brutal – you’re complicit in potentially killing that person you are stigmatising”.