Editorial: Addiction is lifelong struggle

Cory Monteith’s family and friends grieve for a young man they knew and loved. Those of us who knew him only as an actor on a television screen or a celebrity in a newspaper are saddened by the loss of someone who battled against his addictions as he rose to success.

The death of the Victoria-raised actor at 31 is a public reminder that the battle with drugs is never over, and is never the straight line from the basement to the penthouse that we like to believe. It’s a journey where successes are often followed by setbacks. For too many, it ends not with sobriety, but with death.

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In 2010, a total of 219 people died of illicit drugs in B.C., 27 of them on the Island, according to the B.C. Coroners Service. The number fluctuates from year to year, but has been relatively stable for a decade.

Behind each of those deaths are years of painful striving like Monteith’s.

He made no secret of his problems, and that made his rise all the more inspirational. He dropped out of school in Grade 9 and got treatment for addictions when he was 19.

Despite his troubled early years, he found fame in the cast of the TV series Glee. In Victoria, he became a role model for young people who needed to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Those who watched him hoped he could beat drugs as successfully as actor Robert Downey Jr. Fifteen years ago, Downey spent time in rehab and prison thanks to his addictions to heroin, cocaine and booze. Downey had gone so far off the rails he was unemployable.

Today, he is the highest-paid actor in Hollywood.

The roller-coaster of progress and setbacks makes addictions hard to treat. For instance, Monteith was in rehab in April, and the period just after rehab is often the most dangerous, especially for heroin users.

As a society, how much should we spend fighting it?

A broken leg can be set, the patient goes home to heal and the problem is over. With addictions, there is no predictable course from diagnosis to treatment to cure. The patient’s fight is never-ending.

Like mental health problems, which often go hand-in-hand with them, addictions don’t fit well into our health system. But they are far too common. The province estimates that every year, about one in five British Columbians have mental health or substance-abuse issues that are serious enough to cause them suffering or interfere with their goals in life.

B.C. spends more than a billion dollars a year treating mental health and substance-abuse problems. To try to ensure all that money will do some good, in 2010, the government created a 10-year plan to improve mental health and reduce substance abuse in the province.

A reading of the plan shows how big the problem is and how scarce the solutions are, at least for drug abuse. Prevention has to begin with giving children a good start in life. Treatment, however, begins when prevention has failed, when years of suffering have already wounded mind and body.

If addiction started in the teen years, when the brain is forming, it is even harder to kick later in life.

Cory Monteith’s struggle was public. Despite treatment and many signs of hope, he lost the fight. For thousands of British Columbians, the suffering goes on away from the public gaze, in homes and hospitals and on the streets, unacknowledged except by caregivers and families.

Monteith got our attention, but he and all the unknown others who are locked in a lifelong battle need our compassion.

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