The scientific community by and large accepts the truth about addiction: It’s a disease, not a moral failing. Due to the role the brain plays in the development of a substance use disorder, getting caught in a downward spiral isn’t the result of personal weakness; it’s an illness that deserves to be treated as such. However, drug addiction stigma is real.
Even though around 1 in 12 American adults has a substance use disorder, much of the population doesn’t see addiction as a disease for a variety of reasons. Some view an addiction to drugs or alcohol as an excuse to shirk responsibilities. Others see it as an inability to self-regulate. And still others perceive addiction as a self-imposed problem that requires a little willpower, not medical treatment, to address.
Even as society moves toward a more accepting opinion of mental health disorders, addiction is still treated with skepticism. Unlike most mental and physical diseases that develop without fault or cause, addiction does involve an element of personal action. While science understands there are biological factors that play into a predisposition toward addiction, many people are not convinced. Unfortunately, there’s still a long way to go to get everyone else on board.
This is what you need to know about the stigma of addiction, why it’s so harmful and what can be done to pave a path toward acceptance.
Drug Addiction Stigmas
For those who have never lived with addiction, it’s easy to draw conclusions about drug and alcohol users. Most of the time, these types of negative conclusions are false and associated with perceptions and symptoms of the overarching disease. These are some of the primary reasons — whether true or not — associated with stigmatizing addiction:
- A propensity for those with a substance use disorder to lie, cheat or steal in order to feed a habit
- An inability to be a productive member of society due to drug-related job loss or homelessness
- Trouble maintaining relationships, including hurting loved ones over the course of addiction
- Criminal elements associated with selling, buying or using street drugs, including the risk of circulating dangerous or harmful products
- The effects wide-scale overdose deaths and illegal drug trade can have on a community
- The element of choice; deciding to use drugs is a choice, differentiating addiction from physical diseases that aren’t self-inflicted
In some ways, there is a bit of truth in these stereotypes. Some people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol — but definitely not all — will steal money from friends and family or fail to honor important obligations. But painting all substance abusers with a broad brush isn’t fair or acceptable. These kinds of challenges aren’t indicative of who a person is; instead, they are symptoms of a larger disease. When addiction is driving attitudes and behaviors, compulsion primarily influences motivations, not sense or morality.
It’s true that using substances is a choice. However, there’s evidence that many elements of addiction are biological. How the brain responds to stimuli can vary from one person to the next, indicating that some people may be predisposed to developing addictive behaviors. This can also explain why some activities, such as shopping and gambling, can be addicting.
It’s far easier to assign blame to an individual than to take a step back and process the realities of addiction. A failure to put time and effort into understanding the science means continuing to believe the stigmas attached to addiction.
The Consequences of Stigmas
Those who think critically of addiction may have what they believe to be a good reason to do so. They may have faced the ramifications of addiction, such as challenges with a family member, the effects of poverty or homelessness related to addiction in a local neighborhood or even an overdose death of a friend. To a certain extent, it’s easy to understand why personal experiences may cloud judgment. In spite of this, it’s never wise to generalize using individual anecdotes.
Criticism, spite and anger surrounding addiction may be prevalent, but responding with these kinds of emotions is actually very harmful. Someone living with addiction doesn’t need to be told they’re showing signs of irresponsible behavior; they’re already aware of the effects addiction has.
The stigmas surrounding addiction can be extremely damaging, with significant effects including:
- Reluctance to open up about addiction challenges with friends or family
- A strong need to hide signs of addictive behavior, leading to unexplained changes in habits that can negatively affect relationships and job performance
- An unwillingness to seek treatment due to the risk of negative judgment
- An unwillingness to ask for support from friends or family
As long as stigmas continue to drive responses to addiction, those stuck in a downward spiral are likely to keep it to themselves. However, when people are willing to be compassionate rather than critical, those who need help are far more likely to seek it out.
The Benefits of Destigmatizing Addiction
Clearly, stigmas associated with drug addiction play a serious role in reducing forward momentum in the addiction treatment field. However, when stigmas are diminished, there are many ways in which the community at large can benefit. Working to reduce drug abuse stigmas can:
- Take away feelings of shame related to getting help
- Encourage further educational opportunities dealing with addiction medicine
- Increase funding for addiction-related social services
- Improve access to safe and secure resources for those facing addiction, as well as the families of those living with addiction
- Increase compassion and understanding among friends and family members
End the Stigma of Addiction
Ending the stigma of addiction isn’t something that can happen overnight. Instead, changing the ways in which addiction is perceived by society is a slow process that has a long way to go.
The promotion of widespread information and education is among the most important tools to stop the stigma of addiction. Many people are too colored by their own biases or personal experiences to see addiction for what it is: a disease in need of care, not a personal failure in need of judgment. Continuing to provide education about the true nature of addiction, rather than the sensationalized perceptions some people hold, can make a big difference.
When stigmas are reduced or eliminated, everyone benefits, from concerned friends and family members to the community at large. This is particularly true for those considering treatment who are letting stigma stand in the way.
If you or someone you love is affected by addiction, help is available. FHE Health provides a comprehensive step-down approach to treatment in a judgment-free environment. Using a combination of medical and therapeutic resources, we can help you start your journey down the road to recovery on the right foot.