A statement from Charles Kennedy’s family soon after his death acknowledged that he had lost his life to alcoholism. As the tributes poured in, and the memorial services took place, his family and friends will surely have been comforted by an overwhelmingly warm-hearted and generous response. Charles Kennedy was clearly one of the most popular and endearing politicians of his generation.
Alongside the tributes has been a discussion about his addiction. Dr. Max Pemberton, writing in the Daily Mail soon after his death, said “I pity Charles Kennedy – but being alcoholic is NOT a disease.” He accused people of falling over each other to show how “right on” they were by prefixing the word alcoholism with the word illness or disease.
Indeed throughout the media coverage, many people referred to the illness of alcoholism, not least Charles Kennedy’s family whose official statement referred to alcoholism as “an illness that Charles could not conquer.”
Pemberton’s argument was quickly undone by his brash assertion that the disease model of addiction originated in the late 1990s in America, before soon “taking hold” over here. In fact the disease concept of addiction originated in Edinburgh in the 18th century, before coming to prominence in Britain by the end of the 19th century. The American Medical Association first described alcoholism as an illness in 1956. (1)
Other commentators including Martin Kettle, in the Guardian, described Charles Kennedy’s alcoholism as his “demons” or his “flaw”. It is concerning that the medieval concept of demonic possession is still being linked with alcoholism. Even those who talked about a “flaw” suggest that alcoholics have something irredeemably wrong with them.
A unique commentary came from the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman, who lambasted the British public, and British comedians for having joked about Charles Kennedy’s alcoholism right up until his death. She rightly pointed out that for years Charles Kennedy’s drinking had been an easy target, and was considered “fair game” for anyone who wanted to crack a lame joke.
Even after Kennedy’s death, I happened to come across a comedy programme available on BBC Iplayer that joked about Kennedy’s alcoholism. What other mental health problems are still viewed in this way – as a joke?
The debate about Kennedy’s alcoholism faded, and rightly so, but hopefully some people both in the world of politics, and among the general public, will begin to view addiction more seriously. Alcoholism is a very grave diagnosis to receive. It is an early death sentence for those who fail to recover in time. And as the illness progresses, the symptoms worsen, and affect all areas of the patient’s life — from family and friends through to their career until finally the body gives in.
Alastair Campbell used a column in the Sunday Times as a call to action: “unless we face up to the damage being wreaked by addiction across families and communities, overwhelming our health services, tying up our police and filling our courts and prisons, then there will be many more Charles Kennedys. They just won’t be so well known, or so well loved.”
(1) T M Parssinen and K Kerner. Development of the disease model of drug addiction in Britain, 1870-1926. Full text available here.
Photo source: Wikipedia
Page last reviewed and medically fact-checked | June 14, 2021