Edition #5: Telling our stories

Dan is positioned in the centre of a wall surrounded by large Monstera leaves, looking directly ahead
Dan is positioned in the centre of a wall surrounded by large Monstera leaves, looking directly ahead
Professor Dan Lubman, photo: Paul Jeffers

In the know

Is gambling the last great stigma?

Fifty years ago, a cancer diagnosis was considered an automatic death sentence.

The stigma and misunderstanding around the disease meant people delayed seeking treatment, fearing the worst, ultimately leading to the diagnosis becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Professor Dan Lubman, addiction specialist and director of Turning Point, says there are lessons in the cancer story that the gambling help sector can learn much from.

The ‘A’ word

Dan’s early training in psychiatry in the UK was spurred by an interest in stigmatising conditions. This interest led to a specialisation in addiction: as he calls it, the most stigmatised of all mental health conditions.

‘I wanted to understand why people found addiction to be such a hard area to work in, and also to find out how to better advocate for people with addictive behaviours,’ he says.

Dan says moving halfway around the world brought its own challenges.

‘In the UK, addiction (treatment) is part of the mental health system, but not so in Australia.

‘This means that to effectively treat people with addictions, we need to build competencies across multiple workforces, as well as build a stronger evidence base for what works in different settings,’ he says.

‘I wanted to understand why people found addiction to be such a hard area to work in.’

Professor Dan Lubman

When Dan arrived in the country in 1999, there was complete segregation between mental health care, drug and alcohol treatment and gambling help services, as well as a lack of recognition of how these issues occur together.

‘Over the past decade, we have been getting better at building collaborative partnerships across sectors and integrating ways of working together, but the separate funding streams continue to mean there’s an ongoing struggle to offer comprehensive service models.

‘Cross-sector collaboration and the ‘no wrong door’ philosophy is a good first step, but we’ve got a long way to go,’ he says.

Research meets the front line

Dan says, for him, combining research and clinical practice raises interesting questions and opportunities.

‘Working with clients every day means I’m constantly learning what works and what’s not effective, people’s experiences of the health care system, and what we can do to help people overcome the many barriers to getting help.’

‘The "no wrong door" philosophy is a good first step, but we’ve got a long way to go.’

Professor Dan Lubman

He says while mental health remains highly stigmatised, the tide is turning thanks to the work of people like past colleague and mentor, Professor Patrick McGorry.

The psychiatrist and former Australian of the Year inspires Dan because he does not accept mediocrity.

‘One of the most exciting things about working with Pat is he doesn’t accept the status quo.

‘He energises and mobilises people to really push the envelope and do better and I think we can learn a lot from that approach,’ he says.

We need to tell positive stories

The lack of positive stories about recovery from addiction is part of the problem, according to Dan.

‘We know people get better, we know people recover, but we don’t have those visible champions talking about their experiences,’ he says.

‘So all that the community hears about addiction is from the media, which aren’t success stories, but sad, negative images that reinforce the myth that people with addictions don’t get better.’

But the work of gambling help services across Australia tells a different story.

‘We know people get better, we know people recover.’

Professor Dan Lubman

‘We (Turning Point) take calls from over 100,000 clients and family members from across Australia every year, and we hear both their struggles and their successes,’ Dan says.

‘And while we hear their success stories, the public don’t.’

He says we need to tell these positive stories to counter the myths that delay treatment and work against recovery.

Learning from cancer

Dan says he’s motivated by the huge progress made in tackling cancer over the past five decades.

‘If you were given a cancer diagnosis 50 years ago, people just accepted they would die, but health and research came together to ensure there was a better future.

‘And there’s no reason we can’t have the same success in the addiction area, especially if we don’t accept the misconceptions that are out there,’ he says.

Tackling stigma is an important first step.

‘If you are diagnosed with cancer, your family and friends will rally around, talking positively about recovery and supporting you through treatment.

‘By contrast, admit to a problem with gambling and it’s likely friends and family will pull away.

‘The enduring narrative around gambling is one of stigma and blame, but when it becomes a problem, like other disorders, the support of others is critical,’ he says.

According to Dan, we need to counter that narrative by bringing experts together to speak with one voice and send a message of hope instead of the prevailing doom and gloom.

‘We need to tell the positive stories to counter the myths that delay treatment.’

Professor Dan Lubman

Dan says we need to engage people with lived experience in forging a system that welcomes them, telling positive stories about not just surviving, but overcoming, problems with gambling.

‘We need to celebrate success, have hope and optimism, and we can make a massive difference in people’s lives.

‘I, for one, try and share that sense of hope with clients, families and policymakers,’ he says. ‘History tells us that, together, we can make a real difference.

Dan Lubman
Dan Lubman

Professor Dan Lubman is a psychiatrist and addiction medicine specialist who has worked across mental health and drug treatment settings in both the UK and Australia. He is director of Turning Point and professor of addiction studies and services at Monash University. Dr Lubman is chair of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists’ faculty of addiction psychiatry, and is regularly contacted for policy advice and community comment.

Michelle Bryne
Michelle Bryne

Michelle Bryne thinks the world is a pretty great place and there's always wine and chocolate when it's not. Michelle is a professional communicator who thinks random capitalisation is second only to inappropriate apostrophe placement as a crime against grammar.

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