Fighting Against Addiction Stigma

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People who struggle with drug or alcohol addiction have another, unnecessary worry; stigma – the will of another person to negatively perceive someone for their actions.

Those who stimulate addiction stigma are usually unaware of what addiction really is. Many consider it a choice (you choose to take a drug, therefore, you chose to become addicted). However, nobody takes a drug with the intention of becoming addicted. Rather, it takes over their brain and body like a disease [1].

Throughout this article, we’re going to identify just what stigma is and how it negatively affects people struggling with addiction. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.

What is Stigma?

According to the Oxford dictionary, stigma is defined as, “A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.”

In many instances, stigma towards someone defies human rights. It discriminates and belittles a person to the point where they are no longer even considered for an association. This is extremely dangerous for groups of people who desperately need help.

Groups of people such as those struggling with a substance abuse disorder [2].

The unfortunate truth, many people hold a stigma against those with this disorder. If you’ve ever heard or used terms such as “junkie,” “alcoholic,” or “crackhead,” then you too have participated in stigma.

If you’re trying to help a loved one beat drug or alcohol addiction, it’s important to drop these prejudices as soon as possible. The more you carry this derogatory perception, the more you’re going to push your loved one into addiction.

What Does Stigma Really Do?

When you use stigma against someone struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, you’re having a strongly negative impact on their:

  • Harm for others or self
  • Mental health
  • Sense of self
  • Will for treatment and recovery

In order to get a better sense of this strongly negative impact, we’re going to look at each of the above points individually.

Harm of Others or Self

There are a number of ways the public is attempting to reduce harm amongst those who struggle with addiction. These include:

  • Drug consumption rooms designated to reduce common risks involved with drug use
  • Need exchanges
  • Other forms of therapy

When stigma is spread throughout a community, harm reduction strategies often become overlooked.

Furthermore, people suffering from a substance abuse disorder sometimes have tendencies to want to harm themselves. When you perpetuate stigma onto them, you’re giving this person more of a reason to participate in this harm.

To top it off, many people struggling with addiction don’t realize the harm they’re doing to others. Many studies suggest addiction is a family disease as everyone usually is involved (even if only one person is actually taking drugs or alcohol) [3]. This may be the reason you can’t help but feel a sense of stigma.

However, by enforcing this stigma, you are pushing the person struggling further and further into addiction and, in effect, causing more harm to those around him/her.

Mental Health

People struggling with addiction most likely already have or have developed other mental illnesses.

When stigma is perpetuated onto this person, they may develop the shame within themselves (see below). This is usually caused by the social conflictions one has when it comes to their addiction.

If many of those around this person are putting them down for their disease, they will inevitably break social ties. Through this, they are cutting off what could potentially be a support system. In effect, they are less likely to take the necessary steps towards recovery.

Many mental illnesses can develop through this kind of behavior. A person may become anxious to be with other people (social anxiety disorder). The shame may become so unbearable, they begin telling themselves every which way they’re wrong (depression). They may become so isolated they begin to think of a way out (suicidal ideation) [4].

Stigma takes a great deal on one’s mental health. And in order to overcome addiction, it’s vital people with a substance abuse disorder have strong will power.

Sense of Self

When one’s mental health deteriorates, their sense of self naturally follows. Without any self-esteem or self-worth, a person can go down a path even worse than the addiction itself.

Most people who perpetuate stigma have the sense that people who struggle with addiction lack self-control. If this kind of stigma suddenly begins to develop within the person struggling, their likelihood for recovery decreases.

As mentioned, in order to beat a substance abuse disorder, one needs a lot of will power. And in order to gain that will power, it’s vital they have people around them who are willing to support and cheer them on.

Will for Treatment and Recovery

The treatment process for substance abuse disorder isn’t easy. In fact, it’s probably one of the most difficult things your loved one will ever experience. Beyond that, recovery isn’t just a one-time thing. It’s a lifetime pursuit [5].

A reputable treatment facility always strays away from stigma and discusses addiction in a fashion similar to this blog. However, that’s not to say everyone in the medical field holds this perception.

Due to social stigmas, there’s a probability your loved one will enter a medical facility (doesn’t have to be a treatment facility) and face stigma from medical professionals. This kind of behavior has gotten to the point where some hospitals and doctors’ offices will tell people NOT to seek out proper healthcare services [6].

In order to go against common public perception, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was put into place to provide better support to people suffering from disabilities (this includes substance abuse disorders and addiction treatment) [7].

Statistics

With all of the above information, you might be asking yourself, just how relevant is this stigma?

According to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 21.5% (more than 1/5th) of Americans age 12 and older have struggled with a substance abuse disorder at one time or another. Yet, only an estimated 2% of those people receive treatment [8].

This may be due to the stigma still circulating within our society.

These problems are furthered when we look into the criminal justice system. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) conducted a study of 2.3 million people who had been jailed for drug crimes. It found that 65% of them struggled with a substance abuse disorder. Yet, only 11% had received treatment [10].

If these statistics are proof of anything, it’s that we need to fight back against stigma.

What Can You Do to Fight Stigma?

Even if you’ve previously participated in stigma, it’s never too late to reach out and offer the support your loved one needs.

A few ways you can reach out are by:

  • Avoiding any associations with stigma and negative attitudes.
  • Calling out those who try and put your loved one down for their drug use.
  • Conducting research, the more knowledge you have about drug or alcohol addiction, the more likely you’ll be able to help.
  • Listening to what your loved one has to say and not judging.
  • Offering your loved one a support system.
  • Sharing your stories with stigma (if possible).
  • Showing acts of kindness, especially in vulnerable situations.
  • Treating your loved one with a sense of respect and dignity.
  • Viewing your loved one for the individual s/he is, not by the drug(s) s/he uses.

Your Questions

Still have concerns surrounding stigma and drug or alcohol addiction?

We invite you to leave your questions in the comments below. If you have personal experience with stigma and/or advice to give to others, we’d also love to hear from you.

We try to reply to each legitimate comment in a prompt and personal manner.

Reference Sources

[1] NIH: The Science of Drug Use and Addiction: The Basics

[2] Mass.gov: What is stigma?

[3] NCBI: Chapter 1 Substance Abuse Treatment and Family Therapy

[4] MentalHealth.gov: Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders

[5] HHS Public Access: Pathways to Long-Term Recovery: A Preliminary Investigation

[6] Wiley Online Library: A study of stigmatized attitudes towards people with mental health problems among health professionals

[7] HHS.gov: About the Affordable Care Act

[8] SAMHSA: Behavioral Health Trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health

[9] Center on Addiction: New CASA* Report Finds: 65% of All U.S. Inmates Meet Medical Criteria for Substance Abuse Addiction, Only 11% Receive Any Treatment

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