We may think our perception of alcoholism is pretty advanced today, but it has taken many years to get to this point. Dr. Morris Chafetz, who was instrumental in that change of public opinion, passed away last week.
Dr. Morris Chafetz’ Early Career
Back in 1970, when Dr. Chafetz was appointed as the very first director of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), most Americans viewed alcoholism as a social crime and a moral flaw. Dr. Chafetz himself had only recently overcome those prejudices. When he graduated as a psychiatrist from medical school, he accepted the only position he could find, which was starting a new alcohol treatment center. He is reported as not being happy about the position, mostly because of his view of alcoholics. He was quoted later in his life as saying, “I did not think much of alcoholic people. I did not like them; I just was not the least bit interested in them.” (1)
After a short time helping alcoholics recover, he changed his mind, which led him to strive to change public opinion as well. “It only took me a few months of listening to these patients to recognize my prejudices and the prejudices of others,” he said. “I realized that this issue reflected every social health policy problem being faced by the country.” (1)
Improving Public View of Alcoholism
Chafetz became the first director of the NIAAA, from 1970-1975, during which time their annual budget increased from $6.5 million to $214 million. The federal agency was created to provide funds for programs in the U.S. and around the world that promote awareness for alcoholism and that help prevent and treat it.
Today, many people credit Chafetz with changing people’s view of alcoholics. We still have a long way to go, but more and more people today recognize alcoholism as a disease that can be treated rather than a character flaw. With more treatment programs and better treatment options, more people are able to recover from alcoholism. “I remember saying in one of my first speeches that alcoholism was America’s most treatable untreated illness, and I still feel that way,” Chavetz said. (1)
It all starts with education. If more people are open to talking about the problem, more people will admit to having the problem, and more people will seek treatment for it. “Having experienced the extent of my own prejudices and my own ignorance of the issue, I was bound and determined to turn the country around and to treat alcoholics as ill human beings who needed treatment, not as bad people who should be ignored and neglected,” Dr. Chafetz said. (1) He certainly dedicated his life to helping other people see alcoholism in a new light.