Stigma of Addiction: Understanding It and Ending It

Stigmas associated with substance abuse can inhibit sufferers from seeking help to begin recovery, say the substance abuse experts at Serenity at Summit.

There has long been a perception about addiction that is quite unfavorable to individuals who are chemically dependent. Some people view addiction as a choice rather than as an alcohol or drug disease, while others view it as a weakness or moral failing. Those perceptions can negatively affect the chances of people in active addiction seeking help and beginning recovery, report the substance abuse experts at Summit Behavioral Health in Massachusetts. They force those suffering from the disease of addiction and alcoholics to try to hide their addictions, avoiding treatment for addiction and that can lead to serious, even deadly, consequences.

In order to help individuals suffering from the disease of addiction and increase recovery rates, the stigma of addiction must be understood and reduced. Becoming addicted and seeking help both need to be met with compassion and understanding to help alleviate the problem of drug and alcohol dependency.

What Is Stigma?

The definition of stigma is a collection of negative beliefs that society or other group possesses about a subject or group of people.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that stigma is a chief cause of exclusion and discrimination and it adds to the abuse of human rights. When someone is stigmatized, they are viewed as “less than” because of their real or perceived status. Beliefs associated with stigma are rarely factual; instead they are based on preconceptions, generalizations, and assumptions. That means that stigma’s negative impact can be reduced and even prevented through education. But, at this point, the stigma of addiction is still alive and rampant.

Much of the general public still carries negative feelings about drug and alcohol abuse, addiction, and the behaviors that chemical dependencies cause. Using terms like junkie, drunk, and crackhead, add to the negative connotation of addiction and perpetuates the stigma.

How Common Is Addiction Stigma?

In the United States, there are millions of people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, yet only a small fraction receive treatment to get clean and sober. In fact, in 2014, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that of the 21.5 million Americans who had a substance abuse disorder only 2.5 million received much-needed treatment for their addictions.

The stigma of addiction plays a huge part in those statistics. Often, people either feel like they will be negatively labeled or they will lose their livelihoods or relationships if they seek help. It’s been reported that the negative attitudes towards addiction and alcoholism are more prevalent than that towards mental illness.

The Harm Stigma Causes

Addiction can happen to anyone in any family; it does not discriminate. That’s why it’s important that everyone does their part to help reduce the stigma that surrounds addiction.

Addiction stigma negatively impacts various areas, including an addict’s willingness to seek help, harm reduction, and social and mental health.

Impact On Seeking Treatment

People who experience the stigma of addiction are far less likely to seek help and attend treatment, which results in medical, economic, and social costs. Those costs – healthcare, criminal justice, and lost job productivity – are astronomical, and they impact all U.S. citizens.

The stigma of drug and alcohol addiction permeates all areas of society, including the field of medicine. When someone who has a problem with drugs or alcohol encounters stigma in hospitals or doctors’ offices, it can discourage them from accessing help for their addiction, or any healthcare at all. Sometimes even the most well-meaning doctors and nurses feel uncomfortable working with patients who have an alcohol or drug addiction. When medical professionals, such as these, carry a stigma towards people with substance abuse issues, the manner in which they approach them may prevent those addicted patients from seeking further help.

Impact On Harm Reduction

Harm reduction strategies including things like needle exchanges and substitution therapies (Methadone, Suboxone, etc.) are affected by stigma as well. Preconceived notions and assumptions about those who engage in risky drug behavior can lead to harm reduction strategies being unsupported by the general population, even though they have been proven to decrease drug and alcohol use and the cost of care for addicts.

Impact On Social And Mental Health

Perhaps the biggest impact of stigma is on an individual level. It can cause immeasurable harm to addicts’ social lives and state of mind. The ongoing stress that comes from discrimination may affect the mental health of people dependent or addicted to substances. It may cause loneliness, isolation, and a feeling of abandonment, all of which can lead to further drug or alcohol use and pulling away from their family, friends, and community.

When someone doesn’t have social connections or support, they are not as likely to seek treatment for addiction. They may become depressed and attempt to hide their drug or alcohol use from others to avoid shaming and stigma.

Perceived stigma is also easily internalized. Substance abusers may begin to view themselves, as they perceive others do, which can negatively affect their self-esteem and self-worth. The widely-accepted perceptions that people with substance abuse issues are immoral and lack self-control only feed into the stigma and cause barriers to those seeking treatment.

How Can We Reduce The Stigma Of Alcohol And Drug Addiction?

No one appreciates being devalued or judged. Yet, the stigma of addiction is prevalent in nearly every part of the general population. In order to support and encourage those with substance abuse disorders in seeking treatment and beginning their recovery, we must all do what we can to help reduce the stigma of addiction. Empathetic and nonjudgmental support is what is needed to help those suffering with alcohol or drug abuse disorders.

Some of the ways that we can help reduce stigma include:

  • Avoiding derogatory labels.
  • Treating those with drug or alcohol issues with dignity.
  • Acting with compassion to people in vulnerable situations.
  • Listening without judgment.
  • Educating ourselves about addiction.
  • Separating the addict from the disease.
  • Replacing negative perceptions with proven facts.
  • Speaking up when someone is being mistreated because of their substance abuse.
  • Sharing our own stories of addiction, recovery, and stigma.

The substance abuse experts at Summit Behavioral Health believe that it is only through our understanding and reducing stigma that people suffering from the disease of alcohol or drug addiction will begin to feel comfortable coming forward to get the help they need.  Contact us, we understand and can help.

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