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Stop the Stigma: Why Do We Look at Addictions Differently?

February 21, 2024

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The Meadows

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By Stephanie O’Brian, Ed. S., LPC

We have all done it. We see someone battling addiction, and we ignore them, shake our heads, or maybe even glare with disgust. We judge. It can be easy to do, especially when the addiction is so severe, it can be hard to see the person beyond the “junkie” — or any number of any names we call them — drunk, druggie, pothead, burnout, stoner, crackhead, etc. These terms are proof that addiction stigma exists, as none of them convey compassion or empathy. Yet, compassion and empathy are precisely what those living with addiction need and deserve.

Addiction Is an Illness 

When someone has a fractured femur, we readily accommodate them. We are mindful of their need for a wheelchair or crutches, understand their physical pain, and are sympathetic toward the additional burdens they face in recovery. When someone is diagnosed with cancer, we relay the same level of empathy and patience as they navigate the journey that they, themselves, did not choose. 

Yet, as a society, we have failed to recognize addiction as a comparable illness and treat it as such. “Mental health or substance use diagnoses work in two ways,” says Medium’s Russ W. “They can feel like a cramped jail cell that constricts individual self-regard. Or, alternatively, they can explain the previously unexplainable and grant you freedom from shame.” Our culture often shames those struggling as opposed to walking alongside them in their journey to healing and recovery. 

Why Addiction Stigma Persists

Despite the abundance of scientific data that proves addiction to be a disease as opposed to a choice, many still view it as a moral failing. According to The National Council of State Boards of Nursing, the American Medical Association (AMA) classified addiction as a disease more than 35 years ago, and nearly 70 years ago they declared alcoholism an illness. Despite these official pronouncements, public opinion surveys shared by The Guardian indicate the majority of people still see people who are addicted to drugs as “dangerous, unpredictable, and crucially, having only themselves to blame for their predicament.” 

Despite the abundance of scientific data that proves addiction to be a disease as opposed to a choice, many still view it as a moral failing.

So what keeps addiction from being seen as the mental illness that it is? The following beliefs and issues may help explain why addiction stigma continues within our culture:

  • Many feel the person struggling with addiction should have never chosen to try alcohol or drugs in the first place.
  • It’s often assumed that quitting is not that hard.
  • Understanding of the genetic background of addiction is lacking.
  • There’s not enough awareness of the chemical and biological components of addiction.
  • It’s not easy to empathize with a person or situation you cannot personally relate to.
  • Society’s acceptance of scapegoats makes it comforting to have someone to blame.
  • Believing it is a person’s fault frees you from the pressure to help.

The Harms of Addiction Stigma 

Because of the inundation of shame layered onto those living with addiction, only one in seven patients who are dependent on alcohol are treated for their disease, says research from the Western Journal of Medicine. Shame and guilt have been empirically proven to be barriers for those seeking assistance with addiction, according to a PLOS One study. Their research revealed shame brought on by others’ judgment causes the consumption of more alcohol or drugs in an effort to numb out the pain. This, of course, further compounds the problem. What’s more is when those struggling with addiction attempt to detox on their own, the results can be fatal. The combination of these brutal facts create a sense of urgency to stop the stigma. Addiction stigma kills — quite literally. Addiction recovery is a challenging process, and the stigma only makes it even more difficult. 

What’s more is when those struggling with addiction attempt to detox on their own, the results can be fatal. Addiction stigma kills — quite literally.

How to Have Compassion and Empathy 

If you know someone living with addiction, it is imperative first to understand that this is not a choice they made. No one wants their lives to be controlled by another substance. You can become part of the solution and help stop the stigma by taking some of the following steps:

Educate Yourself

There is much to learn about the science behind addiction. Using trusted sites like the National Institutes of Health can help.

Change Your Terms

If you find yourself using words like “addict,” “junkie,” “burnout,” replace them. Someone is not “cancer” or “diabetes.” They are living with these illnesses just like someone is living with addiction.

Own Your Past Thoughts and Actions

Though this may take time and vulnerability, apologizing to the person you care about who is struggling is a huge step and may give them the courage and energy needed to seek treatment.

Explore Addiction Recovery

Educating yourself about addiction recovery can help you recognize that healing is possible, so you can share your hope with others. 

Know You Are Not Alone

Sadly, the disease of addiction does not just affect the person with the addiction, but their family, friends, and everyone around them. Remember to give yourself grace and recognize that your feelings are valid. Alongside you are millions trying to navigate relationships with those who are living with addiction.

There Is Help and Hope at The Meadows

Addiction recovery is possible. The Meadows can help you or someone you love who is struggling with addiction. Like any disease, having professionals on hand to understand the nuances and treatments specific to each individual can help make overcoming addiction not only possible but likely. When you’re in a place where addiction stigma ceases to exist and everyone is empathetic and understanding, it can help to break down the barriers of shame and free you to truly heal. Reach out today to learn how we can help you or your loved one find help and hope.