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Discussing Stigma, Myths, and Misconceptions in DOT Reasonable Suspicion Training

Posted by Daniel A. Feerst, BSW, MSW, LISW-CP Publisher on

DOT reasonable suspicion training should include a short discussion with supervisors about the myths and misconceptions associated with alcoholism and drug addiction, and the impact these beliefs have on being effective in supporting a drug free workplace policy. My advice, so you have a bit of extra credibility, other than the force of your voice and degree, is to rely upon ASAM's definition of addiction (alcoholism) and your knowledge gained from this document on "Adoptive Twin Studies" overwhelmingly supporting the bio-genic nature of the disease. I am not saying you bog yourself down in the weeds on this subject, but I think you need to consider how rigidly people come to a DOT or any sort of alcohol and drug course which deeply ingrained beliefs that are often wrong about addictive disease. These include beliefs that addiction or alcoholism is a sign of personal weakness, a moral failing, poor willpower, part of a depression syndrome, evidence of psychological and personality problems, a subconscious desire for suicide, or proof of the addictive personality. All this stuff has been debunked.

Research like separated twin studies represent powerful evidence of genetic determination of "sedativism" for those who eventually become addicted if the consume psychoactive substances, often for the same reasons as any other person who decides to experiment with alcohol or an licit/illicit drug. One observation: Those with alcoholism in their families and the resultant codependency issues will be your most resistant learners.

The impact of myths associated with drug and alcohol abuse or addiction include the maintenance of stigma which fuels denial both in family members of alcoholics and the alcoholic him- or herself.

Stigma becomes a powerful deterrent to self-referral to alcoholism or drug addiction treatment programs. The most significant stigma interfering with self-diagnosis is the one associated with weakness and vulnerability. This is further compounded by a life long history, or decades of no perceived problems with alcohol, and strong feelings of empowerment from alcohol, as a near magical influence on social engagement. Now, alcohol has turned on the alcoholic and become his or her worst enemy. Be prepared in your reasonable suspicion training course for DOT supervisors to start squirming a bit in their seats during this discussion as a some self-diagnose themselves, a spouse, parent, or child.

Stigma can also contribute to clients avoiding formal and self-referral to the employee assistance program (EAP). Are you beginning to the importance of educating about stigma in a DOT reasonable suspicion training program?

Another vulnerable area for addicts is being blamed for problems they have caused due to their drinking escapades. Some these may include severe personal and financial hardship, or even the deaths of friends. I had a friend who made his autobiography public before he died of cancer, and in that story was an account of his responsible for killing three of his friends in a car crash when drunk decades earlier. Subsequently he got sober, and was in active recovery for 25 years, but it did not happen as a result of this incident. Instead, it was years later. Still, the need to protect oneself from guilt and rationalize and seek other reasons for problems one has caused like these is powerful fuel for denial.

Unless a supervisor in a reasonable suspicion training class can get past the myths and misconceptions, employees with substance abuse problems will remain at risk for being terminated rather than referred to help or an employee assistance program and addiction treatment.

But don't just discuss myths and realities, impart to DOT supervisors information about the chronic disease model of addiction its tenants. If this does not happen in your reasonable suspicion training class, then the blame and anger at addict will continue, and supervisors will remain more willing to fire employees than get them treatment. And if they do get treatment, they risk of sabotage is very high.

Personal experience with alcoholism or addiction in one’s family contributes to beliefs about the illness, its treat-ability, and its cause.Supervisors should understand that it is difficult to change, even in face of facts and overwhelming research. Many DOT supervisors will have alcoholism in their family—and if these were one’s parents, then strong misconceptions and false beliefs about addiction will exist. Coping with an alcoholic parent will establish beliefs about the disease that are not easily changed even with overwhelming facts.