Addiction: a shared shame
Reprinted from "Treatments for Young People" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 3 (1), p. 12
South Asian youths facing issues of addiction have more than the usual barriers between them and the treatment they require. The South Asian culture is a shared-shame based culture: that is, the same of an individual often becomes the shame of the family or the extended family. This issue of collective shame prevents South Asian youth from accessing legitimate support for dealing with their addictions.
I have had the opportunity to work with at-risk South Asian youth throughout the Lower Mainland for the better part of 10 years; specifically, in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver and in Surrey. For many years, I was the only street youth outreach worker of South Asian descent working with this growing population of street-active young people. The majority of the youths I have worked with have been male, although I have supported some females as well.
When I began to encounter street-active South Asian youths, I found they were different than the ‘traditional’ street youth I had previously worked with. South Asian youngsters do not always face issues of poverty, abuse or parental addiction at home, as do so many youth with addiction or mental health issues. Rather, these South Asian youths are often just bored and looking for something to do.
Cultural issues come into play as I assist these South Asian youths to seek support and treatment for their addictions. They are often unwilling to enter treatment for fear of their community fining out. This would bring shame to the youth and his or her family. Treatment for severe addictions can involve a long-term stay in a residential, psychiatric or detox facility; an extended absence would be difficult to explain to relatives, friends and the community at large. Parents of these addicted youth are also in a Quandary. They desperately which to support their child, but don’t know how to tell others that their child is using illicit drugs. This would shatter the image of their ‘perfect’ family.
I know of instances where the parents found it easier to send their youngster to stay with immediate family in another city, or even in India, rather than send them into treatment. This ‘solution’—of sending a child away, with a seemingly legitimate excuse—has been easier for parents to explain and have accepted, than explaining that their child is in a detox, treatment or recovery program. The parents also hope that extended stays away for the youth’s immediate social circle may temporarily alter his or her pattern of substance use. But, it will not address the larger issue of their addiction.
Too often parents do not understand the issues behind their child’s addiction and don’t realize their child may require the support of medical professionals and trained alcohol and drug counselors. Sending a child and his/her problems way ensures that the family name does not become blighted, but it does little to address the serious issue their child is facing.
We South Asians need to place a greater emphasis on support and recovery of our youths who are trying to manage their addictions, than we do on family image and reputation. Only when we disregard the fear of shame will be able to support our youths in the manner they deserve.