Stigma is a set of, often negative, beliefs that society holds about a particular topic or group of people. Any subject can be stigmatized. However, one of the most common issues people think of when they hear “stigma” is substance addiction. It’s not surprising that the topic of addiction is ripe with misconceptions and stereotypes. However, not many people seem to realize the impact these stigmas have for those who are struggling with addiction.
The WHO’s Definition of Stigma
Stigmas are harmful because they are almost never factual. Rather than perpetuating the truth behind a subject, stigmas circulate presumptions and generalizations about that subject. When something (or someone) becomes stigmatized, it often elicits the following public responses:
The World Health Organization (WHO) labels stigma (as it pertains to health) as one of the leading contributors to health-based discrimination and human rights violations. In cases of substance use disorders, the disproportionately negative perceptions that the public has about addiction can have profound effects on those suffering from it.
The Addiction Stigma in the United States
Today, over 23 million Americans struggle with addictions to drugs or alcohol. However, only 2.5 million people (11% of those with a substance use disorder) ever receive professional treatment. This shocking statistic is arguably a result of the stigma of addiction. The shame that comes with addiction, as well as the label of “addict” for people who struggle, can cause even more adverse effects that go beyond deterring treatment.
The Effects of Stigma on Those with Substance Use Disorders
Outside of making it hard for those affected to seek treatment, the stigma of addiction can also make addiction worse. The blame that the public places on those struggling with addiction generates fear, guilt, shame, and hopelessness. These and other negative emotions take a heavy toll on mental and emotional health.
In 2014, the Journal of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research published a study linking substance abuse with the development of mood disorders. This study revealed that when people struggling with addiction suffered social rejection or discrimination, they began to show signs of depression, anxiety, or both.
That same year, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health conducted a study regarding public attitudes toward two distinct and equally stigmatized groups of people: those with mental illness and those with substance use disorders. The results were surprising— the majority of the people surveyed had a more negative attitude toward those with addiction than those with mental illness. Additionally, most of the people interviewed asserted that those with substance use disorders shouldn’t have as much access to things like insurance and employment.
Why Exactly is Addiction Stigmatized?
The most substantial reason why addiction is stigmatized is because most people don’t understand it. It is human nature to fear (and stigmatize) what we don’t understand, and when it comes to addiction, most people don’t see it as the disease it is. In fact, more than 76% of Americans believe that substance addiction is nothing more than a moral problem. However, the idea that people who struggle with substance use disorders choose to continue using drugs and alcohol is wrong.
Since addiction changes brain chemistry, those who develop a dependence on a substance— illicit or otherwise— have no choice but to feed the addiction. After all, the addicted brain tricks the body into needing drugs or alcohol. Addiction, then, is rightfully classified as a chronic disease. Even so, most people fail to recognize substance abuse disorder as a disease. Also, those with other chronic health conditions don’t usually face the same stigma.
Factors of Addiction That Perpetuate the Stigma
Although the general public seems to be gaining a better understanding of most chronic mental health conditions, most people still perpetuate misconceptions about addiction. The reasons why stem from many factors, including our laws regarding drugs, the language we use regarding addiction, and the high relapse rates among those with substance use disorders.
Disproportioned Anti-Drug Laws and Sentencing
Not every drug is illegal. Alcohol is widely considered socially acceptable (when consumed in moderation), and drugstore medications can be prescribed to just about anyone. When it comes to illicit drugs, however, our attitudes toward them can be traced back several decades.
The U.S. government has always been vocal about illicit drug use, and even today it continues to promote anti-drug messages. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, our nation’s “war on drugs” doesn’t do much to encourage people to seek help. In fact, the strict laws surrounding illicit drug make it out to be as immoral as other criminal activities like violence and prostitution.
Additionally, the punishments for drug-related crimes make it difficult for people in recovery to reintegrate into society. As a result, even the people who served time for drug-related misdemeanors like possession have a more difficult time finding employment, receiving welfare benefits, and other things needed for long-term sobriety.
The Words We Use
Language plays a significant role in any stigma, but especially in addiction. The negative words and hurtful labels we use when talking about addiction carry a more substantial impact than they often realize. Using stigmatizing language can prevent people who need treatment from reaching out for help. Some of the more common terms that feed the addiction stigma include:
Even the words “addict” and “addiction” seems to carry a negative connotation since it’s become so tainted by stigmatization.
The High Relapse Rates of Addiction
Unfortunately, addiction is a chronic disease that has one of the highest rates of relapse. Even after receiving treatment, those in recovery may still relapse at least once.
The fact that relapse in addiction recovery is considered commonplace is one of the primary reasons why addiction is so stigmatized. There are other conditions with high rates of relapse— like diabetes— but because most people don’t fully understand addiction, they often blame those in substance use recovery for their conditions.
Breaking the Stigma
Anyone can be guilty of perpetuating the stigma of addiction; strangers, friends, family, and even healthcare providers. What makes this especially dangerous is the epidemic levels of drug overdoses in the United States today. Drug overdoses have overtaken every other form of accidental death. To reduce the number of national drug overdose deaths, we have to encourage more people with substance use disorders to receive treatment— and we can only do that by putting an end to the stigma against addiction.
The #NoMoreShame Initiative at TTC
The Treatment Center created the #NoMoreShame campaign to help the recovery community break the stigma of addiction. Our staff, patients, alumni, and supporters work hard to spread awareness for the general public and to offer hope for those who are still struggling. Several methods have been proven to be effective in reducing the addiction stigma.
Steps You Can Take:
- using non-stigmatizing language instead of harmful labels
- doing research and raising awareness about what drug dependency is and how it works
- forming thoughts and opinions about addiction based on evidence and facts
- offering support, kindness, and compassion to people with substance use disorders
- listening to people with substance use disorders and their loved ones without judgment
- treating everyone with respect and dignity— even the people struggling with drug dependency
The #NoMoreShame initiative and all its methods have already spread across the United States. We’ve also gathered support from the UK, Canada, South Africa, and many other countries! With so many people raising awareness and sharing their own stories on social media, The Treatment Center is proud to be a part of the movement that’s reshaping the way we think about substance use disorders.
If you or someone you know may be struggling with a substance use disorder, call The Treatment Center at (844) 310-9546. We believe in you, and we’re more than happy to help you achieve lifelong sobriety. For more information about how to get one of our #NoMoreShame bracelets, click here!