Unhealthy debate on addiction
One hopes that the many years of hard work that has gone into educating the public about the nature of the disease of alcoholism and other addictions has not been entirely undone by the discussion surrounding the Prime Minister over the past week.
Addiction is not a moral issue; it is a health issue which must be treated, not scandalised.
This is the point that former minister Verna St Rose Greaves tried, not very successfully, to make, wrapped as it was in a discussion about the Prime Minister's political strength and competence.
The virulent response from cabinet ministers rushing to defend the PM by attacking Mrs St Rose Greaves served no purpose except to exacerbate the already shrill tone of public discourse. Hopefully, it has not undermined the confidence of the many people who are fighting to find the strength to stay out of the clutches of addiction and regain control of their lives.
It is no secret that the disease of alcoholism is rampant among people in every strata of life in this country. This is a disease that has the potential to inflict great damage to the lives of the afflicted as well as to those within its range. It is, however, treatable.
Generations of alcoholics have succeeded in turning their lives around through such support groups as Alcoholics Anonymous, various counselling services and medical treatment.
Many more would triumph over this disease if society could resist the temptation to stigmatise those who are alcohol-dependent. In fact, the fear of being stigmatised is often the reason why alcoholics enter a state of denial and avoid the very treatment that is needed to bring health and wholeness back to their lives.
In the case of those who hold high public office, there are indeed special implications to consider. While senior public officials face no less risk of addiction than anybody else and require the same level of sensitivity and compassion, it is a matter of public interest if the addiction poses a threat to the quality and integrity of their performance. This is the point that separates holders of high public office from the rest of us, and where the private lives of public persons become a matter of public interest.
In the United States recently, David Petraeus resigned as CIA director not because he was having an affair but because an affair posed the risk of potential blackmail with consequences for the CIA and the security of that country.
These are serious issues for which every country must equip itself in order to ensure that the private behaviour of public officials do not imperil the state and that the integrity of public life is protected.
In this process, gossip and character assassination should have no place.
If there is anything to salvage from this debate over substance abuse and the Prime Minister, it is that we still have far to go in terms of changing attitudes to addiction.