Millions of people worldwide struggle with addiction regardless of age, race, or socioeconomic status. Despite our changing understanding about the nature of addiction, it is still one of the most highly stigmatized conditions. While stigmas surrounding other conditions, such as mental health disorders, have begun to shift in recent years due to education and developments in treatment, the stigma of addiction and substance abuse still remains a highly polarized topic. Research and studies have shown that addiction is a chronic disease that requires professional treatment, yet many people still hold beliefs that treat addiction as a shameful choice.
Stigmas are beliefs and attitudes that manifest as prejudice and discrimination. They inform how a person views others. In regard to addiction, stigmas perpetuate the belief that addiction is a choice. It is viewed as a moral failing that provokes reactions such as shame, rejection, and contempt. Despite how a person’s addiction impacts their everyday lives, stigmas surrounding substance abuse inform negative stereotypes and make it difficult for those in need of help to seek treatment due to fear of how they will be perceived or treated by society.
Stigmas Affect Addiction and Substance Abuse Treatment
Even among those who use drugs, there are stigmas surrounding what types of substances are used. The line between “socially acceptable” and legal substances compared to illegal drugs can be stigmatized even among substance users. The public’s views of the danger and deadliness associated with particular drugs can inform how stigmas manifest. Misuse of alcohol or “soft drugs”, such as marijuana, are often viewed very differently as compared to use of heroin or cocaine. Stigmas even exist in how a person uses drugs. For example, snorting substances is often viewed differently than injecting.
Stigmas serve to dehumanize a person rather than viewing addiction as a disease. Terms like “junkie” or “crackhead” are commonly used to reference those with an addiction, condemning the entirety of a person rather than separating the person from the disease. Stigmas incorrectly inform and stereotype identities, erasing a person from the conversation and ignoring the complexities of addiction.
Harmful stereotypes and stigmas surrounding addiction can make a person reluctant to seek treatment. Asking for help requires a person to acknowledge the existence of a problem that is still largely treated as a moral failing. The fact that substance abuse is largely criminalized, and that relapse is common inform many stigmas surrounding addiction. Criminalizing addiction affects perception leading many people to believe it is an immoral choice. The experience of relapse is also treated as a choice. This leads to the misconception that people choose addiction despite consequences, which reflects poorly on their character and how they are perceived by society. It completely overlooks the biological changes that occur which allows it flourish. Addiction changes the brain, affecting cravings and impulse control, hardly making the continued use or drugs or alcohol a choice someone actively makes.
Breaking the Stigma: Changing How We View Addiction
In addition to social stigmas, stigma can be internalized as well. Their presence can be painful and can make it difficult to seek treatment. Ultimately, this can cause addiction to worsen over time. In order to combat stigma, it is important to change the conversation around addiction.
- Addiction can affect anyone: A culture of silence and shame surrounding addiction can make it seem as if it is not prevalent. Addiction can feel isolated, but in reality, countless people struggle with it every day. There is no formula that determines who will develop an addiction and when. It can affect anyone regardless of individual factors and it does not define a person’s morals, character, or worth.
- Addiction is a disease: Even if a person initially chooses to experiment with a substance, it does not mean they are choosing addiction. Many people have used substances without developing dependencies. Biological, environmental, and socioeconomic factors can all play a role in the development of addiction. Substance abuse changes the way the brain works. It rewires the brain’s reward system to encourage continued use. This change in brain function shows that addiction is not a choice. Relapse is also common because of these biological changes. While recovery can be difficult, treatment is effective and can help the mind and body heal much like treatment for any other disease.
- Education and support: One of the most important aspects of addressing stigmas surrounding addiction is speaking out. There are countless organizations, support groups, and treatment options available to those in need. These groups are also able to provide education and resources related to addiction. Additionally, as individuals, calling out disparaging remarks and stereotypes can help those in need feel supported. The silence and shame surrounding addiction allows stigmas to flourish. The reality of addiction is painful and without support, it can lead to worsened outcomes. Dismantling stigmas in an effort to change the conversation surrounding addiction can help shift the perspective of society into one of support rather than one of harsh judgement and criticism.
- Language: Changing the way we talk about addiction can remove the dehumanizing aspect of it. Rather than referring to a person as an “addict”, acknowledging them as a person with an addiction can be impactful. Language informs how we view and treat others. Terms like “addict” can make it appear as though a person is nothing more than their addiction. Addiction is a disease and talking about it in a way that acknowledges that can make it easier for a person to view it as an aspect of their experience they can address rather than their entire identity.
It is possible to get better and overcome your addiction. Seeking treatment and sober living services can help. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, contact us today to learn more about your options and let us help you get the help you are looking for.
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