Substance abuse treatment is an effective way to break free from drugs or alcohol, but the stigma that surrounds seeking out treatment might prevent some people from getting the help they need. A recent research review published in the journal Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation looked at the effects of stigma on people who abuse drugs and alcohol. The authors found a wide range of effects across the 64 studies reviewed, and they found that stigma probably has some impact on treatment-seeking but isn’t necessarily the most important factor involved.
Types of Stigma
Different studies define and measure stigma differently, which makes it hard to figure out the exact effects. In some cases, stigma involves blatant discrimination. In others, it occurs more subtly and may be harder to identify. People might experience stigma for the actual drug or alcohol use, or they might be stigmatized for the act of going to rehab. Nonetheless, in this review, the researchers identified a few types of stigma that could prevent people from seeking out or accessing treatment.
- Public stigma comes from society as a whole and involves general attitudes about substance abuse that often cause people to avoid seeking help because they feel embarrassment or shame about their problem.
- Perceived social stigma occurs when people go to someone for help and encounter negative public attitudes about addicts. In some cases, doctors or social workers might think people with an addiction are manipulative or violent. Or they might believe that they don’t have the motivation and willpower needed to change.
- Self-stigma develops when a person with a substance abuse problem internalizes those negative messages from caregivers or society in general. This can lead to self-doubt about the possible success of treatment and self-questioning about whether treatment is even worth trying.
All of these types of stigma can make someone more reluctant to seek treatment, but none seemed to be the only reason people chose not to get help.
The Impact of Stigma on Getting Treatment
In most cases, stigma isn’t the main reason people cite for avoiding treatment. The review found cases where study participants ranked stigma anywhere from the most to the 8th-most-relevant barrier. In cases where stigma was on a list of possible barriers, participants also listed plenty of other things. Some things that the researchers identified as having a greater effect than stigma include:
- Not recognizing the existence or extent of the drug or alcohol problem
- Not being ready to stop using drugs or alcohol
- Having other negative attitudes about treatment
Essentially, stigma isn’t typically the sole or primary reason people avoid seeking treatment for substance abuse. It can have an impact, though, when multiple stigmas are present from multiple sources. The effects are even more striking if the attitudes come from a medical provider or rehabilitation center staff member. Barriers to treatment add up, so it’s important to tackle treatment resistance from a variety of angles.
Dealing With Stigma
Because stigma ties in with other factors to make people reluctant to get help, addressing and reducing stigma helps smooth the path into treatment.
One point noted in the review was that many people with substance abuse problems don’t want to be identified as “addicts” or “junkies.” The labels themselves carry a stigma, and some people may avoid longer stints in treatment or any form of treatment at all, lest they be considered part of that group.
Non-judgmental attitudes from staff at a rehabilitation facility seemed to have a strong ability to counter the negative effects of stigma. A caring, compassionate staff reduced self-stigma and negative emotions about treatment, showing the strong impact that the right residential program can have.
To learn more about getting treatment in a supportive environment free of stigma and judgment, call FHE Health today at (866) 421- 6242.
Sources: R Hammarlund, KA Crapanzano, L Luce et al. Review of the effects of self-stigma and perceived social stigma on the treatment-seeking decisions of individuals with drug- and alcohol-use disorders Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation