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Ending The Stigma Surrounding Addiction

Dr. Anna Pickering

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Anna Pickering

April 3, 2019

Stigma is characterized by a set of negative and often misinformed beliefs that society or a group of individuals hold about a particular circumstance, quality, or person. Addiction-related stigmas are often fueled by a lack of valid information which promotes inaccurate theories about addiction.

The derogatory terms in common use, such as junkie, stoner, crackhead, etc., used to describe individuals with addiction reflect a moral judgment that was made when the understanding of addiction was limited. Today, scientific progress has helped more and more people understand that addiction is not a choice or a moral failing.

Addiction is a chronic brain disease and should not be the cause of shame. As a biophysical disorder, addiction is typically caused by a combination of certain biological, psychological, and social risk factors which increase the likelihood of becoming addicted.

Changing The Conversation About Addiction

Due to the negative stigma surrounding addiction, people with substance use disorders may go without treatment. In order to stop this from happening, the conversation about what it means to have addiction must change and access to evidence-based treatment must be increased.

Words have the power to both wound and heal, so it is important to choose them with care. Choosing negative words can cause people with addiction to hide, fuel self-destruction, and prevent or postpone seeking help. However, positive word choices can serve as a springboard for change, offer hope, encourage personal healing, and give the power back to the individual with the addiction.

People with substance use disorders are often in need of hope-infused language that is recovery-focused. New language that openly discusses the many pathways and styles of recovery has the potential to open up more opportunities for healing and recovery.

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Where Does The Stigma Surrounding Addiction Come From?

Similar to other social phenomena, the stigma of addiction is developed and maintained for a variety of reasons. Some reasons may be purposeful, while others are unconscious, personal, social, or institutional.

Possible reasons for addiction-related stigma include:

  • Maintaining Distance: Stigmas provide people with an excuse to distance themselves and ignore people whom they may not want to associate with.
  • Expressing Disapproval: Individuals can express their disapproval of others and discourage behaviors that they are uncomfortable with through stigma.
  • Feeling Superior: Stigmas can give individuals or groups of people a false sense of superiority, making them believe that they are better than others.
  • Feeling Safe: Stigmas allow people to feel that they are safe because what they are stigmatizing “can’t” happen to them.
  • Promoting Agendas: Individuals may try to discredit others in order to promote their personal and social agendas, goals, and objectives by using stigmas.
  • Controlling Others: By attempting to diminish the wholeness of people to stereotypes, stigmas may allow one group of people to control others.
  • Expressing Fear: Stigmas can give people a way to express their fears about the beliefs and behaviors of others in, what they perceive to be, a socially acceptable manner.
  • Hurting Others: Stigmas can provide people with a way to hurt others, intentionally or unintentionally, by branding them as unworthy of love, patience, or opportunities.

The Effects Of Addiction-Related Stigma

Slowly, stigmas can chip away at the public’s confidence that substance-related disorders are valid and treatable health conditions. This can result in a wide range of effects on people with addiction, their family and friends, and the public as a whole.

Stigma comes in many forms, such as prejudice, discrimination, fear, shame, distrust, and stereotypes. This often results in people understanding, perceiving, and defining the stigma of addiction in a wide variety of ways.

Individuals with substance use issues may fear their condition being known or worry that they will not be treated with respect while undergoing treatment due to addiction-related stigma. The inability to obtain treatment can lead to the worsening of destructive behavioral patterns, such as low-self esteem, isolation, and hopelessness.

How stigma causes roadblocks to recovery:

  • The Addicted Individual: Often those with an addiction experience a loss of control over their lives. When everything becomes unmanageable, they can experience bouts of low self-esteem and begin to realize how much they have hurt themselves or others. They may feel like victims or blame themselves and feel they do not have the power to get better.
  • Within The Recovery Community: During recovery, it is also possible for people to stigmatize others recovering from a different substance. For example, someone who is recovering from alcohol addiction may stigmatize others who are recovering from cocaine addiction. Some people may believe that illegal substance addiction is worse than legal substance addiction.
  • Treatment Providers: Some therapeutic treatment staff may feel that medical addiction treatment is ineffective, and some staff members from abstinence-oriented programs may feel that maintenance programs are just trading one drug for another. It is also possible for some providers to believe that non-recovering counselors are superior to those in recovery. Others may believe that non-recovering counselors don’t fully understand addiction and recovery processes.
  • On The Outside: Recovering individuals can face a barrage of stigma from the general public. This is typically fueled by misinformation and fear and can include unconscious remarks and behaviors, as well as mean-spirited actions. Often, the general public is unable or unwilling to see beyond an individual’s addiction to the genuine person underneath.

The stigma of addiction can diminish someone’s ability to follow the path to recovery.

When someone develops a substance use disorder, they are in need of a lot of support, encouragement, and love.

Tips For Ending Addiction-Related Stigma

Ending the stigma surrounding addiction will not happen overnight. In fact, it will likely be a slow process that involves the community and, on a larger scale, society in a mutual effort to help addicted individuals get the treatment they need so they can live the life they deserve.

There are many ways to prevent addiction-related stigma, including the following:

Learn More

There are a lot of resources and information on addiction, inpatient treatment, and recovery. Many organizations and government agencies provide information on websites, through videos, and other multimedia outlets. It is best to get this information from official sources to ensure that it is valid.

Speak Out

The more someone knows about addiction, the more misinformation is recognized when it is spread. It is also more likely for informed individuals to notice the prejudice and other negative effects of stigma. Don’t be afraid to speak out against inaccuracies and guide others to legitimate, informational sources.

Treat Others The Way You’d Like To Be Treated

It is possible for those dealing with substance use disorders to include, friends, coworkers, family, and neighbors. Practice respect and patience with everyone, because sometimes it is difficult to tell who may be struggling with addiction.

Think About The Whole Person

There is more to an individual than their addiction. Knowing that someone has an addiction does not provide enough information about who a person is. People are so much more than the labels placed on them.

Addiction Treatment

Despite the stigma surrounding addiction, with proper support and treatment, individuals can recover. Don’t let stigma stop loved ones and others from getting the care they need. Addiction is a complicated disease and recovery from it takes time.

Help end the stigma surrounding addiction, contact us today.

American Society of Addiction Medicine - Patients with Addiction Need Treatment - Not Stigma

Central East, Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network - Anti-Stigma Toolkit, A Guide to Reducing Addiction-Related Stigma

Johns Hopkins University - Drug Addiction Viewed More Negatively Than Mental Illness, John Hopkins Study Shows

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