Throughout our history Americans have been speaking up for those who, for whatever reason, cannot speak for themselves. Be it to abolish slavery, child labor or breast cancer, we tend to band together in an effort to change the status quo and force law, scientific research or public policy to match the emerging social conscience of the day.
Although the body of research continues to evolve, we now know that addiction is an illness. As such, it needs to be treated less like a moral failing and more like a physical or mental condition that can be identified, treated and monitored for relapse outside a penal setting. However, until an illness can be prevented, cured or routinely treated, the need for further research, improved medical care and, where appropriate, reasonable accommodation is common. But like many other illnesses that have yet to be “cured”, addiction often leaves its victims with neither the physical stamina nor the emotional resources to fight for what they need to make themselves better. Enter the American advocate.
For years, like-minded individuals and organizations have banded together to promote the interests of active and recovering addicts, alcoholics and mental health patients. These groups look out for the health and welfare of this underrepresented and often-maligned constituency by sponsoring educational initiatives, lobbying legislators or testifying before government committees, offering advice and guidance to grassroots organizations, providing legal assistance to victims of discrimination, supporting prevention-oriented campaigns, providing free or low-cost treatment to the those lacking access to affordable services, and generally doing everything in their power to get the truth out about the prevalence and consequences of substance abuse and mental illness. Due to the unique nature of addiction, advocacy groups also exist to protect the legal interests and safety of both the addict and those around him.
In order to be effective at advocacy, a group must have both the respect of its audience and the evidence needed to convince even the harshest naysayers. Because not everyone believes that it is a real disease, when it comes to addiction some of the most effective advocates are the professionals who work directly in the field: scientists, doctors, therapists and social workers. The APA Practice Organization (APAPO) is an example of professionals organizing to help improve the lives of people suffering with mental illness, including addiction. In 2014, the APAPO plans to advocate for, among other things, greater medicare reimbursement for mental health issues.
Not all advocacy groups champion the addict, however. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is a non-profit that has been around for close to 35 years. While the understanding or treatment of alcoholism may be a by-product of MADD activities, this group is primarily concerned with identifying actual or potential drunk drivers and getting them or keeping them off the road via stricter state driving laws and educational programs. MADD claims that drunk driving has been reduced by fifty percent since its founding.