The Cambridge Dictionary defines stigma as “a strong feeling of disapproval that most people in a society have about something, especially when this is unfair.” Stigma means discriminating against, labeling, and stereotyping a particular group of people with a common attribute.
Where Does The Stigma Of Addiction Come From?
The stigma of addiction — the feelings of disgrace, embarrassment, and shame associated with the condition — arise from the behavioral symptoms and aspects of substance use disorder. Those addicted to substances tend to display impaired judgment and erratic behavior and sometimes participate in harmful or criminal activities. These actions often negatively impact the addicted person’s career, relationships, and day-to-day life.
Sadly, these negative consequences cause shame and embarrassment to those with the addiction and their families and create stigmatized attitudes about addiction in society. People with addictions are often stereotyped as stumbling drunks or addicts shooting up in dark alleys. They are often labeled winos, crackheads, bums, or junkies. The stigma of addiction has become a significant factor that prevents many people from getting the help they need and stands in the way of effective addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery — or even acknowledging the problem.
Consequences Of The Stigma Of Addiction
The stigma of addiction keeps substance use disorders underdiagnosed, under-treated, and misunderstood, especially compared to other chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and cancer. Addiction is too often seen as a moral failing, weakness, or criminal matter rather than as the health problem it truly is. These beliefs present major challenges for those struggling with addiction, making them feel isolated or helpless.
Stigmas are difficult to escape — people with addictions may be treated with suspicion and mistrust, even after they’ve completed treatment. Stigma even exists within the recovery community. People who use safe injection sites or medications like methadone are often seen as not being truly sober, even though such treatments significantly reduce overdoses and cravings and reduce the risk of relapse.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that in 2021 about 10.4% of people who felt they needed substance use treatment did not seek it because they feared attracting negative attitudes from their communities.
Many public housing entities, academic institutions, jobs, and insurance policies discriminate against individuals with addictions, even if they have reached long-term recovery. Substance use disorder remains largely marginalized by the mainstream medical field because of a lack of robust education in medical school.
Challenging The Stigma Of Addiction
Educating people about the true nature of addiction is the single most important step in fighting the stigma. We must also educate our society, politicians, and medical professionals. Public perceptions of substance use disorders are influenced by their knowledge about them, their experience with people with SUDs, and media portrayal of people with SUDs.
Understanding that substance use disorders are chronic, treatable medical conditions will go a long way toward eliminating the stigma of addiction. People with substance use disorders need compassion and respect — not blame.
Those who treat addiction need to share the true stories of people who are in recovery and dispel the myths about addiction and recovery. They must emphasize that it is a chronic disease that can be successfully managed for life and one that many people recover from.
Those with the knowledge and understanding should promote pro-recovery messages, policies, programs, and community spaces to encourage and support recovery.
In a nutshell, we must consciously try to correct the stereotypes and misconceptions that negatively impact the way substance use disorders are experienced and addressed. The NIH says it best: “When people with addiction are stigmatized and rejected, especially by those within healthcare, it only contributes to the vicious cycle that entrenches their disease.”
The stigma must be changed, and society must understand that addiction is a treatable chronic illness that can affect anybody of any age, gender, social status, income, or family background.
Practical Ways To Challenge The Stigma Of Addiction & Promote Compassion
Here are things you can do personally to help overcome the stigma of addiction:
- Seek treatment if you need help, with support from community, school, and workplace resources
- Choose to believe — and to show others — that stigmas and stereotypes are not accurate
- Talk openly about the facts and realities of addiction
- Educate others to help fight the stigma
- Be careful with word choices to avoid labeling others. For example, instead of “drug abuser,” “addict,” “alcoholic,” or “junkie”, use “a person with a substance use disorder.”
- Make people aware of any language and actions representing stigmas so they can be changed.
It is critical to remember that people struggling with substance use disorders are more than their disease and should be treated with the same compassion as any other person with a chronic medical issue. Treating everyone with respect and dignity can reduce stigma and help encourage those struggling with addiction to get the help they need.
Stigma and stereotypes discourage addicted people from seeking treatment. However, change will come only with education and greater understanding. Once people with substance abuse disorders are treated with the same respect, understanding, and compassion as those with other chronic medical conditions, the stigma will fade and we’ll go on to become a kinder and more capable society.
Bridges of Hope is a Joint Commission-accredited dual-diagnosis adult substance abuse treatment program. Our program is designed to achieve long-term recovery. We are licensed by the State of Indiana Department of Mental Health & Addiction.
Our treatment philosophy is based on a comprehensive and integrated approach to addressing all issues related to substance use and mental health disorders. We leave nothing to guesswork as we utilize therapeutically proven, evidence-based clinical practices. We place superior patient care as our highest priority and offer them all-inclusive treatment services.
Mission Statement: We provide hope and healing for anyone with alcohol and substance abuse disorders.
We connect everyone to their own personal journey, bridging the gaps previously unmet.