Rob Ford And Paul Flowers: Is Media Coverage Fuelling Stigma Around Addiction?


"Toronto's crackhead mayor" headlined a Rob Ford story this week in the New York Post and this morning "Sorted For He's And Whizz" was the Sun's front page splash.

But could the story of two men, Co-op bank boss Paul Flowers and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, held up for public ridicule for their drug-taking, be damaging the chances of addicts seeking help?

The ex-chairman of the Co-Op bank, Flowers faces a police quiz and has been suspended by the Labour party over his use of crystal meth, crack cocaine and ketamine, after secret video footage from the Mail Online showed his conversations with a dealer. He was immediately suspended as a Methodist minister.

Ford has taken a more bullish approach. Filmed smoking crack cocaine, he apologised but refused to resign his position and denied being an addict, saying he had probably smoked "during a drunken stupor".

His alleged alcohol use has been repeatedly covered by the Canadian media over the past few months.

Whilst acknowledging that it is clear that public figures taking illegal drugs is a story the public do have a right to know, charity chiefs at both Drugscope and Addaction have concerns.

"There is a tension between what is clearly in the public interest, and the struggles of these men going through deeply personal challenges," Simon Antrobus, chief executive of Addaction, told HuffPost UK.

"The portrayal of those with substance and alcohol abuse issues is overwhelmingly negative, never focused on what those who abuse might be compensating for.

"Having these battles played out in the media could have a significant impact for people who are going through similar difficult circumstances. The men have been almost ridiculed in the media, their troubles are cartoonish, and they were potentially ensnared."

Flowers said in his apology he had had an exceptionally difficult year, with the problems at the bank, and the death of his mother.

Harry Shapiro, director of Drugscope agreed that underlying issues were often at the heart of a drugs scandal.

"When you hear what Mr Flowers has experienced, who knows how one would react in the difficulties he has been through? I hope people are still able to think, 'there but for the grace..'", he told HuffPost UK.

"The stigma of addiction is very apparent, it was interesting to hear in the mental health debate in Parliament recently how MPs were open about talking about problems with depression or mental illness."

But there would be no similar candidness about previous struggles with drugs or alcohol.

"It's still a matter for Victorian morality, that addicts only have themselves to blame. That is not the case, no one aspires to be an alcoholic or heroin addict."

Flowers, believed to be in hiding abroad, said his taking of crystal meth had been his "lowest point in this terrible period". He has said he is seeking professional help.

"We have to be clear, there is no indication the men are addicts, many people do use drugs without getting into difficulties," Shapiro added.

"We don't know if Rob Ford or Paul Flowers have a drug problem, or got just caught using illegal drugs.

"What this does show is that drug users are not just your archetypal homeless man shooting up heroin. They come from across society. Crystal meth is a very powerful drug, it's not just a puff of cannabis."

The concern could be not just for the welfare of the men in the eye of the storm, but the message it sends out about the treatment meted out to those who abuse drugs.

"Most people do feel their drug and alcohol addiction is deeply shameful, and people are less likely to seek help if this is how they'll be treated," said Antrobus.

"Many of those who come into our Addaction clinics do feel like this is the first time they have been treated with respect and objectivity, compared to the chaos of the lives living with addiction.

"These are serious issues, and there are consequences. And there is less interest, of course, in those who have got their addiction under control, got lives back and can contribute to society, people like Russell Brand, Naomi Campbell."

The "witch-hunt" is what concerns Shapiro and says: "I do hope this does not lead to counter-productive action, with banks deciding they need to drug test people at work. And if that is a consequence, there must be proper pastoral support in place, not just disciplinary action."

Ford himself has now called for drugs testing of councillors in Toronto, a motion rejected by the council.

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