The Stigma of Addiction

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There is still a powerful stigma associated with addiction. Because of current societal perceptions of addiction, those who are addicted to alcohol and drugs are often considered “bad” or “weak” people, rather than sick people. Addicts are often harshly judged and condemned for their substance abuse problem rather than receiving empathy and support. Why is this?

Common Reasons why Addicts are Stigmatized

In spite of the fact that more than 23 million Americans (twice the number of current cancer patients) are suffering from the life-threatening disease of addiction, we live in a society that largely rejects the fact that is addiction is a disease. There are several reasons why those who suffer from the disease of addiction are treated unfairly by members of our society.

1. Beliefs

Many people believe that addiction is a choice. Again, to quote NIDA, “the initial decision to take drugs is voluntary for most people, but repeated drug use can lead to brain changes that challenge an addicted person’s self-control and interfere with their ability to resist intense urges to take drugs.” Addiction is not a choice. It is a complex brain disease.

2. Religious Teachings

Some consider addiction as a type of moral failing and brand addicts as bad people. Many people have been taught through religious teachings that using drugs is a “sin” and that it is morally reprehensible. This is an unfortunate viewpoint because modern science has proven through brain imaging scans that addiction profoundly affects a person’s biology and brings about a mental disease. Many good-hearted, decent, hard-working people are addicted to drugs. This doesn’t make them bad, it makes them sick.

3. Legal Issues

Because many mood and mind-altering drugs are illegal, some have taken the position that those who use drugs are a societal burden and they should be punished. Many Americans forget that alcohol was once illegal. Not too long ago, marijuana was also illegal but is now approved for recreational and medicinal use in many states. Laws change, but medical facts do not. The American Medical Association has recognized addiction as a disease since 1856. Addicts shouldn’t be punished or judged. They should receive the help they so desperately need.

4. Willpower

Is addiction a matter of willpower? Many people think so. Addicts are often stigmatized and judged as weak because they do not have the willpower to just quit their drug of choice. The problem is, no amount of willpower can treat the disease of addiction. Addiction is overcome with specialized care from addiction experts and medical professionals. These are just a few of the reasons why there is a stigma against those who suffer from the disease of addiction. The truth is, many people have disdain and contempt for those with the disease of addiction because they fail to understand that this behavior is characteristic of the disease itself. In recovery, addicts feel overwhelming shame and guilt over how they acted while they were under the influence of drugs. We should give them forgiveness and support so they never have to return to the behavior that strikes fear in their communities.

One Expert’s Opinion about the Stigma Surrounding Addiction

When explaining the disease addiction and its corresponding stigma, social worker Robert Weiss sheds some light on the situation in an article in Psychology Today:

“I am constantly amazed by the amount of misinformation currently in circulation regarding the causes, nature, consequences, and treatment of addictions,” said Weiss. “Furthermore, I am saddened by the effect that many of these myths have on the people who are dealing with addiction - primarily the fact that the instant these individuals admit that they have a problem, they are shamed and stigmatized on many levels by family, friends, employers, and society in general, which often delays or prevents them from seeking the help they so desperately need.

He continued, “The good news is that despite the many myths about addiction, many addicts have sought treatment and established long-term sobriety and recovery, living healthier, happier, and more productive lives. The bad news is that many more addicts are shamed and stigmatized into silence and continued addiction. The simple truth is addiction is a chronic, progressive, and potentially fatal yet treatable disease, much like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. In other words, addicts are not bad people, they are sick people. And they deserve empathetic and supportive treatment just like any other sick person.”

How we can Break the Addiction Stigma?

We’ve established that there is a nationwide addiction epidemic sweeping the United States, killing tens of thousands every year. How do we become victorious in fighting this epidemic? By treating one addict at a time. The same holds true when it comes to battling the societal stigma against those who have a problem with addiction. By educating one person at a time, we can change the collective way we view the disease of addiction.

By demonstrating compassion, empathy, and kindness towards those who are addicted, we create a safe space where addicts can be healed instead of ridiculed. By learning about the disease of addiction and the science behind it, we can take an educated stance on addiction treatment instead of basing our beliefs on misguided opinions. In offering a helping hand and support to those who suffer from the disease of addiction, we break the cycle of addiction one addict at a time.

Resources to Help Break the Stigma of Addiction

Want to get educated about the disease of addiction? Here are some helpful, reputable websites:

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMSHA)

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)

Health and Human Services (HHS)

American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM)

It only takes a little bit of online research to discover the volumes of information available that support the medical fact that addiction is a disease. Because addiction is destroying our country and killing our nation’s parents, children, friends, and loved ones; we all have a responsibility to get educated about addiction and start recognizing it for what it is – a life-threatening disease.

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