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The Stigma of Addiction – Why it’s harmful and why it needs to change.

By Linda Whiteside

Medically Reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson

Table of Contents

the stigma of addiction

Depending on the data source and criteria being used, researchers estimate that between 15 and 30 (or more) million Americans meet the clinical criteria for substance abuse disorder at any given time—and unfortunately, this number appears to be climbing. Statistically speaking, that means that most people in the US probably know at least one addict. With so many people struggling, it would seem logical that our collective view of addiction would be more progressive than it actually is. 

The stigma of addiction can be a serious obstacle for those with substance abuse disorders who need help. It is estimated that about 75% of those with substance abuse issues don’t receive treatment.

Stigma Surrounding Addiction

Many individuals fear opening up about their addiction due to the shame, guilt, and negative consequences that often accompany being labeled an “addict”. Many of these individuals avoid seeking the treatment they need do to the stigma associated with addiction, which negatively impacts society as a whole.

For a recovering addict, stigma can be a devastating addition to what is already a serious uphill battle. For ex-addicts, learning how to deal with the stigma comes with the territory.  Unlike a lot of other parts of treatment, fighting the stigma of addiction is also one area where family and friends can have a huge impact.

Until addicts truly feel comfortable talking about their problem, we may have no hope of reversing the current epidemic of drug use and increasing rates of alcoholism. Stigma is a very real reason people don’t seek help; reducing it is a very real way to save lives. To do this, we need to attack the problem on two fronts. Recovering addicts need to learn how not to internalize negative messages from wider society, and wider society needs to learn why stigmatizing addicts is hurtful and unproductive.

Helping Society Overcome the Stigma of Addiction

Even if you don’t personally know an addict, understand that the stigma that addicts experience affects all of us indirectly by not helping the situation. Shame is a big reason people may stay in denial and/or refuse to seek help. For people abusing drugs or alcohol, putting off help can have deadly consequences. In fact, in 2016 over 64,000 people died from overdoses, and 88,000 people died from alcohol-related causes. Overdoses strain local emergency response and hospital resources. Addiction also costs the economy tens of billions of dollars every year.

Breaking Stigma Of Addiction

For anyone who has a loved one struggling with substance abuse, advocating for a more compassionate and humane understanding of addiction is a meaningful thing to undertake. Even if the addict in your life is still using, helping to educate other people is one positive thing you can do for them that doesn’t fall into the trap of enablement.

  • Addiction is more common than you think. People from all cultural and economic backgrounds struggle with substance abuse. In fact, respected professions like medicine and law have a higher-than-average number of addicts.
  • Incarceration is not a good way to prevent substance abuse. Research has shown that prosecuting low-level drug offenses is not an effective deterrent People with felony records are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to obtaining jobs and housing, making it very difficult for recovering addicts to be self-sufficient. Ultimately, this just costs society more money by creating more demand for prisons and public assistance, while losing wages and productivity. Unless the addict is endangering other people by doing something like driving a car under the influence, non-criminal options to address substance use should be expanded.
  • Science says that addiction is not a moral weakness. Lack of strength is not why people become addicts. A combination of family history and genetics, untreated trauma or mental illness, and the way our brains’ reward system is wired all play an important role.
  • Treatment Services Deserve Funding. America’s mental health and addiction problems are so serious that our average life expectancy is decreasing for the first time in 30 years. This statistic should concern everyone. To address this problem, Americans need an affordable health care system that takes behavioral health and addiction medicine seriously.
  • People in recovery should be given a chance. Although housing providers and employers can legally discriminate against people with a history of addiction, it shouldn’t necessarily be grounds for disqualification or dismissal. The chance of someone relapsing falls dramatically with the amount of time they’ve spent in recovery, a fact that managers in some fields could take into consideration. There are plenty of ex-addicts who are perfectly capable of working hard and staying clean.

How To Remove of Stigma of Addiction?

Regardless of how well-intentioned friends and family are, eliminating the stigma of addiction will take time. This means that at some point, almost all recovering addicts will be at the receiving end of judgment about their history. The fact that many addicts also have a history of arrests or incarceration makes this problem even worse. 

As painful as it is, there are a few things to remember as well as cognitive-behavioral techniques that can help lessen its impact. These techniques will get stronger with practice, but the effort is worthwhile for recovering addicts as they continue to build and strengthen their mental health and resolve.

“Addiction is an Illness Not a Issue of Morals”

  • It’s none of your business what other people think of you. Over a century ago, famous author Oscar Wilde said as much, and he couldn’t have been more correct. While it takes effort, remember that there is no way to make anyone think or feel a certain way; likewise, no one can make you feel anything. You can’t control what other people say, only how you react. Detaching yourself from needing the approval of others will make moments of stigma easier to bear. Remember, it’s not your fault the person is uninformed about the realities of addiction.
  • Remember that you have an illness, not a moral problem. Although social attitudes are changing, some people hold on to the old-fashioned belief that addiction is simply a weakness. Genetics and neuroscience prove them wrong. Although you’ve struggled with substance abuse and may have done bad things, you are not a fundamentally bad person.
  • Save your strength. Each choice that you make costs you a little bit of energy. When you’re in recovery, choosing to argue your case with doctors, friends, or family members who have decided you’re a weak person costs you valuable time and energy. Make sure you save it for times when advocating for yourself may actually be worthwhile, like at a job interview. You can certainly help educate people about the realities of addiction, but again, it’s not your job (unless you work at a treatment center!).
  • Find other addicts. No one else will be able to understand exactly what you’ve been through like other recovering addicts. This is part of what makes attending recovery groups so indispensable. Your peers will be able to offer commiseration and support, and you can vent in a confidential space. If you’ve found that AA or NA isn’t for you, there are plenty of secular alternatives. Even if you live somewhere isolated or have a busy schedule, there are also plenty of online groups and message boards.

Letting Go of Stigma Doesn’t Make it Ok to Keep Using

Just because we humanize our understanding of addiction does not mean that addicts shouldn’t be held accountable for their behavior. Active addicts are capable of doing tremendous damage to themselves and others. Changing the way we think and talk about addiction is not the same thing as giving them a free pass. Instead, reducing the stigma of addiction helps us save lives by treating addicts like people who need help, not punishment. 

Reducing stigma also helps “normalize” the situation so that people can feel better getting help and feel supported in their recovery. For those that argue that a degree of normalization is a bad thing, statistics simply prove that addiction is already very common, just not being talked about. If anything, getting the facts out there—like just how much impact addiction can have on the organic structure of the brain—may make addiction less enticing.

If the humanization argument isn’t enough, sheer numbers should be evidence on their own. Right now, substance abuse is costing taxpayers and the economy hundreds of billions of dollars every year. This situation is untenable, and whatever actions can be taken to free up EMTs and hospital beds, reduce jail crowding, and get as many people as possible working will benefit the economy and thus help all Americans eventually.

Regardless of what reason is most appealing to work toward reducing stigma, one thing is for certain—if the situation remains in the dark, we will never find the bottom of it. Ready to start your sober journey but don’t know where to start? Get in touch with us today!

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Author

Written By: Linda Whiteside
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Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who has been providing mental health services for over 10 years.

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson
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Went to medical school at The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

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