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Surveying public opinion

October 30, 2008
by Rob Swindell
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SAMHSA recently released a study, entitled, Summary Report: Caravan Survey for SAMHSA on Addiction and Recovery, which surveyed public perception about “prevention, recovery, and stigma related to substance addictions.”

Surveys can be a valuable tool in providing important information regarding public opinion; however, they can also be misrepresentative or misleading in their interpretation. Perhaps even worse, considering the time and expense of conducting a professional survey, the survey may fail to ask the right question, or word the question so that it does not provide meaningful results.

The questions asked in a survey should be both carefully worded and considered, and, just as importantly, provide the basis for decision-making based on the results. Surveys should make available, at the very least, valuable statistical information to support the arguments based on these decisions.

This survey portrays a largely positive outcome, even subtitled, “Americans Believe in Prevention and Recovery from Addictions.” And while there is some support of this conclusion, the results of this survey, and the process of the survey itself, require further analysis.

To take just one short example, consider in regards to stigma:

· The question asked was whether you would “think less of a friend or relative if you discovered that person was addicted to alcohol or drugs.” While 20 to 30 percent would, respectively, there is some definitional vagueness in the word “less.” However, and more importantly, the interviewee is being questioned about a friend or relative. The nature of the question invites loyalty and support, and might not accurately reflect the stigma attached to others.

· Perhaps contradicting this, and not making the “short report,” was the percentage of Americans that feel people (not just friends or relatives) could stop using if they “just had enough willpower.” Forty-four percent, or nearly half, seem to believe that addiction is just a matter of willpower. What do we think of people who are just not “trying hard enough” to overcome a disease that is not only ruining their lives, but also the lives of those around them? Less?

· This premise is further exemplified in another question that asks about the “comfort” level with people in recovery- sorted by friends, co-workers and neighbors. The comfort level (again, whatever this actually means) decreased with association, or, to state reversely, stigma increased the farther a person was from the addiction.

The story of stigma, for addiction, is paradoxical. On one hand, we ask the public to make a moral commitment to help those that have fallen to the disease of addiction based on genetic and environmental factors. However, on the economic side of the appeal, we ask the public to support addiction because prevention and treatment programs are cheaper than the cost of prison.




You have some interesting comments. Can you expand on what you mean by 'we ask the public to support addiction because prevention and treatment programs are cheaper than the cost of prison'?

Thanks for your comments/question!

I think the premise presented to the public in arguing that treatment is cheaper than prison is based on the cost of moving people through the legal system and the likelihood that they may return to prison.

There seems to be a preventive/treatment bias when it comes to taxpayer spending. Preventive/treatment programs are sometimes regarded as wastefully solving other people's problems. On the other hand, taxpayers feel as though they have a right to safe neighborhoods. Thus, reactive spending is seen as a benefit to taxpayers that want those involved with drugs out of their neighborhoods- even if it costs more in the end.

The more cost-effective solution is to treat those inflicted with drug and alcohol addictions. Within their recovery, they are committed to society, and contribute both socially and financially to its collective well-being.

I think changing public perceptions on the issue of addictions is rooted in the public's personal experience of drug usage. Many have "tested" drugs and believe, how ever naively, that anyone can stop. Because of this personal experience they stay detached from the reality of the disease and the individual's differences. This is a difficult problem!


Rob Swindell

Rob Swindell


Rob Swindell is the Associate Director of the Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services (ADAS) Board...

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