Skip to main content

Breaking the Stigma Surrounding Addiction

Stigma describes society's negative beliefs or perceptions around what medical professionals now call substance use disorder, also known as addiction. These beliefs represent a significant barrier to people who need treatment for substance use disorder. They also have the power to dramatically alter a person’s self-perception and impact their relationships with loved ones.

Dismantling stigma is a challenging but essential process for improving access to care. It’s a public health issue that drastically affects people with substance use disorder.

What Is Stigma?

The word “stigma” has its roots in Latin and Greek and refers to a mark, brand, or tattoo. It’s a way of marking someone to signify their differences or a potential source of shame.

In the modern sense, stigma is a set of negative beliefs society holds against a specific topic or group of people. It often involves labeling, discrimination, and stereotypes.

Addiction isn’t the only subject affected by stigma. Stigma surrounds many issues and groups, including people living with HIV or cancer, depression, other mental illnesses, and social identities such as race or sexuality. These negative perceptions often come from a long history of misunderstanding the subject and contribute to present-day challenges for the affected groups.

The Consequences of Addiction Stigma

The stigma surrounding substance use disorder can not only decrease access to treatment, it can also deteriorate the quality of care itself. Everyone’s perceptions are affected by stigma: the general public, people dealing with substance use disorder themselves, and medical professionals dispensing treatment.

Medicine has long since acknowledged that substance use disorder is a complex brain disorder with nuanced behavioral components. Nevertheless, the idea that people with substance use disorder have some inherent moral failing or character flaws persists.

Even friends and loved ones might use derogatory terms in their frustration towards a person with substance use disorder. It’s easy for someone to internalize this stigma and experience it towards themselves. Their self-esteem might decrease as well as their own self-belief in their ability to overcome their disorder.

Other consequences of addiction stigma include:

  • Decreased access to care – People with substance use disorder may be less likely to seek treatment because they are concerned about the stigma they’ll experience in the doctor’s office. They may also disbelieve in their ability to get well.
  • Lower quality treatment – Doctors, nurses, and other health professionals are all affected by stigma, though they may not realize it. If they hold negative perceptions about their patients, the treatment they administer may be less compassionate or effective.
  • Lack of harm reduction interventions – Harm reduction interventions are public health measures to decrease the risk associated with substance use. These might include needle exchanges and substitution therapies. They are less likely to be offered when people with substance use disorder are vilified.
  • Social and mental impact – Stigma can profoundly affect a person with substance use disorder, lowering their perceived self-worth. This may lead to isolation or even an increase in self-destructive behaviors.

Perpetuating the stigma around addiction helps no one. Medical providers, mental health professionals, advocacy organizations, and the general public must work together to defang the stigma that makes substance use disorders harder to treat and heal.

Reducing the Stigma Around Addiction

Many groups have been fighting to reduce the stigma around addiction for years. However, with something this pernicious and persistent, it will take a concerted effort to dismantle fully. A few key initiatives will make this possible.

Awareness and Education

Awareness is always the first step in neutralizing a stigma. Building awareness involves educating everyone about how substance use disorder works. When more people understand it as a chronic disease, they will be less likely to perceive it from a moral standpoint.

Training for Providers

Medical and mental healthcare professionals need to receive more sensitive training on how to treat patients with substance use disorders. It’s essential that they understand not just how the disease works but how to treat their patients with dignity and respect despite any preconceived notions they might possess.

Choose Your Words Carefully

The way we speak about people with substance use disorders matters. It vastly impacts how they are perceived and how they perceive themselves. Society must strike derogatory terms from its vocabulary entirely.

Experts at Johns Hopkins recommend a shift to person-first language. Instead of calling someone a drug abuser, try saying “person with substance use disorder” instead. Instead of the term “clean,” use “in recovery.” Some words can have an intrinsic level of blame baked into them. Opt for more neutral language whenever possible.

Even official organizations designed solely to help people with substance use disorder may need to reevaluate their names. Some professionals recommend renaming federal agencies like the National Institutes of Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The term “abuse” has a moral charge to it. Removing this term may have a positive impact.

How You Can Help

Wondering how you can help destigmatize substance use disorder? There are several ways that individuals can contribute to the cause:

  • Do your research – Learn more about drug dependency and how it works. Don’t assume you understand what someone is going through.
  • Offer support – Be a listening ear for friends going through substance use issues. Try to withhold judgment while you listen.
  • Avoid hurtful language – Notice how you talk about substance use disorders. Remove any derogatory or harmful terms and replace them with more neutral language.
  • Treat everyone with respect – No matter how you feel about what someone is going through, treat them with dignity. Do your best to see the human, not the issue.
  • Speak up – If you hear someone talk about substance use disorder in a way that reinforces stigma, gently challenge their beliefs. Do your part to raise awareness.
  • Share your story – If you’ve experienced stigma in your own life, talk about it. Posting on social media or simply sharing via word of mouth can help reduce stigma.

Just because substance use disorders have been stigmatized throughout history doesn’t mean they have to continue that way in the future. We can all work together to destigmatize addiction and change how we talk about, think about, and treat these complicated issues.

Move Past Stigma and Find Support

If fear of stigma prevents you from getting the care you need, you’re not alone. Taking the first step and reaching out for help can be daunting. You deserve to get the care you need without shame or fear of blame.

Jackson House offers compassionate, judgment-free treatment for many issues. We know there is no one-size-fits-all plan for your recovery, so we highly customize your treatment to meet your needs. Explore our programs today and start your journey to recovery.

Back to top