Putting an End to the Stigma of Addiction
Society is not always kind to people who suffer from addiction. Whether they are still in the process of getting back on their feet or have been maintaining sobriety for years, society has a way of turning its back on these people because of the stigma that exists. People wrongfully believe that those who abuse alcohol or drugs are “less-than” and often view them as disgraceful, moral failures or weak. The stigma of addiction has the potential to adversely affect a person’s self-esteem as well as damage relationships. But that is not all. Arguably, the worst effect the stigma of addiction is its ability to prevent those battling addiction from seeking or getting treatment.
According to a study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, society was more likely to have a negative attitude toward people dealing with addiction than toward those facing other forms of mental illness. This study also revealed that many people do not support policies that benefit those who are dependent on drugs, including housing, insurance and employment policies.
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Anyone can become dependent on drugs or alcohol, yet a majority of people still view those who are, or have at one time been, addicted to drugs or alcohol as second-class citizens who simply make poor decisions. Although we know that addictions are chronic and treatable mental health conditions, not everyone holds the same view. One survey found that, of the people who participated, over 76 percent thought that addiction occurs by choice.
The same research study revealed the testimonies of individuals facing addiction and their feelings about the stigma of addiction. These people shared from their hearts what they wish others would understand rather than making hurtful presumptions and generalizations about their addictions:
“Addiction is not the entirety of me. I am me; I am not just my addiction. There is a lot of other stuff to love.”
“Just because I am/was an addict, doesn’t make me a bad person. Deep down inside we are wonderful, loving people.”
“I wish people saw the time that addicts spent alone, thinking about everything they’ve done; every time they’ve lied and stole.
The stigma of addiction can cause great harm to individuals both mentally and socially. It can also impact their success in overcoming their addiction by way of proper treatment.
Chronic stress associated with discrimination can be detrimental to those suffering from addiction. Many people who abuse drugs or alcohol feel as though they are made into societal outcasts, and some even turn to profound isolation and loneliness as a result. When someone feels like they have no one to reach out to or talk to, they are less likely to reach out for treatment or healthcare. There is also an increased likelihood they will become depressed. The consequences of societal stigma can push those struggling with addiction to attempt to hide from their problems with even more drug use— a vicious cycle that is almost impossible to break out of alone.
Perceived stigma is also an issue among those who face addiction. Some people who abuse drugs or alcohol may view themselves as abnormal or outcasts because of the stigma associated with addiction. This can dramatically impact their perceived self-worth and self-esteem, further contributing to their struggles with drugs or alcohol and creating an even larger barrier between themselves and the addiction treatment they need.
People who use drugs are less likely to pursue treatment if they have experienced stigma. According to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 21.5 million Americans over the age of 12 had a substance use disorder in the year prior to the survey, but only 2.5 million received the treatment they needed.
Because some doctors and healthcare providers treat patients differently due to this stigma, people often have a hard time stepping foot into hospitals or doctors’ offices. Studies have found that some healthcare professionals are uncomfortable working with people who suffer from addiction. When health providers are skeptical or carry a stigma toward a person with addiction, it can affect their overall treatment of the patient. Their reserved demeanors may be perceived negatively and prevent patients facing addiction from seeking further treatment.
Addiction is Not a Choice
People may make a choice to have a drink or use a drug, but once a person reaches the point of addiction, that choice no longer exists—they lose all control. They might want to quit and may even try, but their brain has been rewired, which causes them to think and behave differently.
When one abuses drugs or alcohol, the parts of the brain that control emotion, pleasure, memory and motivation are affected, contributing to dependence. People often use addictive substances because they cause changes in the brain that encourage the release of large amounts of dopamine, which makes them feel pleasure. The memory of quick and easy pleasure is stored in the brain, in the hippocampus. An addicted individual then remembers how easy it is to feel pleasure when using the substance, so they use again. And thus the cycle of addiction begins—not by way of choice.
It is an ugly world in which we live when the people who need love and acceptance the most are shunned. When an addicted person is harmed by such societal rejection, they may feel that the only place they can ever again find pleasure is at the other end of a needle or bottle. They may believe there is no hope. From healthcare professionals to loved ones, as well as the rest of society, people with addictions have been let down time and time again when needing help.
No matter what the situation, no one wants to feel devalued or judged. If you know someone facing addiction and the stigma associated with it, you can help by offering empathetic and nonjudgmental support.
Help reduce stigmas by:
- Avoiding hurtful labels
- Being kind to people in vulnerable situations
- Listening without judging
- Replacing negative attitudes with facts
- Treating people with dignity and respect
- Speaking up when you see someone being treated poorly because of their drug use
- Sharing your own experience of addiction-related stigma
- Offering passionate support
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol there are several ways to get help. Contact us today to learn more about our addiction treatment programs.
Since 2004, Lori has worked with the behavioral health treatment community to bring awareness about mental health disorders and evidence-based treatments. Lori strives to help people better understand mental illness and provide support to those needing help and their families. As a mental health advocate, Lori works to be a voice for those suffering from substance abuse, dual diagnosis, borderline personality disorder, depression, anxiety, trauma, or any other disorder.