When it comes to addiction, shame and stigma are destructive forces. What is stigma in terms of addiction? Stigma is what says that your addiction to drugs and alcohol is a character flaw. It is what says that you are a bad mother, brother, father, daughter, etc. Stigma is what says you are worthless and crazy. Stigma is why addicts often lie than admit they are suffering and need help. The definition of stigma is as follows: “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.”
The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as a “chronic, relapsing brain disease,” and the American Society of Addiction Medicine characterizes addiction as a “primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” Despite these definitions from prominent organizations, many people still think of addiction as a moral failing. Many still refer to people struggling with substance abuse as junkies, crackheads, and drunks.
Why is this the case? Very simply, it’s because that’s the way it has always been. Addicts are often rejected from communities, and struggling celebrities are exploited by the paparazzi. While the government suggests we view addiction as a disease, the War on Drugs still considers most drug users to be criminals. So despite widespread agreement that addiction is a brain disease that requires treatment, society is still hardwired to prolong stigmatizing addicts and their drug and alcohol use. And stigma contributes to the deadly nature of addiction.
Why is stigma so dangerous when it comes to addiction? For one, many people fail to seek treatment due to their concern that they will be labeled as an addict. If we were able to remove the stigma, guilt, and shame associated with addiction, perhaps more people would be more able to make a realistic assessment of their substance use and speak openly about it with a healthcare professional. Secondly, addicts get sent to jail instead of treatment. The majority of the money that the government spend on “drug control” is spent on criminal justice, rather than on treatment and prevention. Thirdly, even when people do get treatment, stigmatization still occurs, which can contribute to poor treatment outcomes. It is important for professionals to not shame or blame patients for their addiction or relapses. Addiction often comes with a sense of failure that can prevent future growth. In treatment, it is important for patients to be surrounded by uplifting treatment and language that encourages growth and a hope for the future.
The reality of addiction is this: it is a brain disease that does not discriminate against any particular race, age, sexual orientation, religious background, socioeconomic status, et cetera. It is important for all of us to watch the stigmatized language we use to describe people struggling with substance abuse. Terms such as junkie, wine-o, and meth head all have negative connotations that suggest addiction is a lifestyle choice.
The key to reducing the stigma attached to addiction is primarily education and awareness for addicts and the rest of society. With compassion, understanding, and tolerance, individuals struggling with substance abuse can receive the help they need in the most effective way. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, please do not let shame and stigma hold you back from receiving the support you so desperately need and deserve. If you are suffering and do not know where to turn, give Addiction Intervention Now a call today at (800) 208-8680.