Green Juice Skeptic: Trump’s Hunter Biden comments fuel mental illness stigma

Art with a silhouette of Donald Trump against a fiery background.
Arielle Chen | Daily Trojan

President Donald Trump’s comments about Hunter Biden’s drug addiction were among the numerous attacks brought up against former Vice President Joe Biden in the first presidential debate. Beyond an attempt to stray from policy-related discussion, the president sought to shame Biden and his family due to his son’s history of cocaine use. Rather than revealing scandalous details about his opponent, the president successfully undermined the severity of drug abuse and mental illness more broadly in his comments. 

Mental health issues already come hand-in-hand with stigma, in large part due to the history of misinformation and even discrimination surrounding the afflicted. However, Trump’s comments render themselves particularly lamentable given the deep public stigma held about drug addiction. According to a study published in Behavior Analysis in Practice, people suffering from drug addiction face even worse discrimination for their illness than those with other mental health concerns and are often looked down upon for their perceived lack of willpower or moral ineptitude. 

Much of the stigma associated with addiction has to do with the challenge of even defining the problem as a disease. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a United States government-funded research institute, addiction is defined as a chronic disease. Repeated drug use chemically inhibits the brain’s ability to exercise self-control and ultimately resist urges to future drug use. It causes ongoing changes within the brain, making the illness especially susceptible to relapse. 

It is in the interest of the president, or any U.S. government official, to have an informed understanding of substance abuse and its severity. 

According to research analysis by the Closing the Addiction Treatment Gap initiative, 23.5 million Americans are addicted to alcohol and drugs, accounting for approximately one in every 10 Americans over the age of 12. Drug overdose-related deaths have more than tripled since 1990 and numerous Americans have said that drug addiction is a growing problem in their local communities, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center. 

There is certainly hope for recovery from drug addiction, although treatment does not necessarily provide a cure. Rather, due to the fact that addiction is chronic, treatment and recovery often enable the survivor to manage their illness long-term. 

Numerous advocacy organizations over the past several years have pushed for increased awareness and broader access to addiction treatment, as only 11% of those suffering receive such help. This has created a serious treatment gap between more than 20 million Americans, along with a host of economic consequences. 

In 2018, substance abuse cost the United States more than $600 billion, due to combined costs related to crime, lost work productivity and health care. However, treatment is proven to be far less costly than incarceration of persons with abuse issues. 

According to the NIDA, the average cost of one year of treatment for methadone addiction is approximately $4,700 per patient, while a full year of imprisonment costs around $24,000 per person. In addition to bringing about important economic benefits, improving access to treatment will result in improved societal well-being, with a reduction in drug-related accidents and overdoses. 

Barriers to treatment and the continued practice of incarcerating members of our society who suffer from drug abuse only reinforce disparities within our public health system. Our failure to achieve a holistically well society will be an ongoing concern so long as addiction remains stigmatized and even politicized. 

The president’s comments about Hunter Biden highlight the attitudes that have invalidated drug abuse as a serious medical concern and public health crisis and contributed to undue inequity in our society. His comments alienated the percentage of his constituency who suffer from substance abuse and arguably, the 26% of Americans ages 18 and older who also suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. It is abundantly clear that attempts to tackle drug abuse and mental illness are not a priority of his administration. 

Recovery from drug addiction is hard, although not impossible, and with recovery comes a great deal of bravery and strength on the part of the survivor and their family. The former vice president’s response to Trump’s egregious remark, stating “I’m proud of my son,” highlights the sort of care and sensitivity needed to support all Americans struggling with addiction and our ongoing hope toward building a healthier nation. 

Sophia Ceniza is a junior writing about the intersections of wellness and social issues. She is also the wellness & outreach director of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Green Juice Skeptic,” runs every other Tuesday.