One of the most harmful and pervasive experiences that many people battling substance abuse face is addiction stigma.
Although most healthcare professionals now understand that addiction is a medical condition, it’s still a commonly held belief among the general public that it’s a sign of weakness or a personality flaw.
Experiencing the harmful effects of stigma can lead someone with a substance use disorder (SUD) to experience addiction shame, which may significantly impact recovery and slow progress.
By understanding what stigma is, people can remove harmful language from their vocabulary and eliminate negative attitudes to show more compassion to people in recovery.
Understanding Substance Abuse
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in seven Americans will experience a substance use disorder in their lifetime. This number is on the rise due to the current opioid crisis.
Common causes of addiction include:
- unresolved trauma
- genetic predisposition
- mental illness
- receiving addictive medications, such as prescription opioids, after surgery or an injury
- family history of drug abuse
Since some people drink alcohol or consume illicit or prescription drugs without becoming addicted, they may hold the false and damaging belief that people “choose” addiction.
However, like other health conditions, addiction is not a choice. Over time, substances like alcohol and opioids can cause changes in the brain leading to intense cravings.
Although addiction is a chronic condition, there are a number of effective, evidence-based treatment approaches that help people achieve lasting recovery.
It’s critical for people battling substance abuse to feel supported in their recovery, since the stigma of addiction and the shame it causes are popular reasons why people avoid treatment.
What Leads To Addiction Stigma?
There are a number of societal beliefs that lead people to view those who are experiencing addiction in a negative light.
Blame is one of the most common. For a long time, it was believed that people with SUDs could control their substance use and were choosing not to.
There are also many harmful stereotypes surrounding addiction that are perpetuated in movies, TV shows, music, and other entertainment media.
People with SUDs are often viewed as dangerous, unstable, or violent. These beliefs may be strengthened in people who aren’t close to anyone experiencing drug abuse.
There are even addiction stigmas within the healthcare field. A patient who sees a healthcare provider for a physical health condition may be dismissed or go untreated due to a current addiction issue.
Other factors that strengthen addiction stigmas include:
- stigma around mental health disorders
- lack of public health resources
- harmful language
- problematic laws surrounding drug possession and use
Self-Stigma And Addiction
When people experience stigma from others, they may start to incorporate the same ideas into their own belief system and develop something known as self-stigma.
There are two main types of self-stigma: internalizing the beliefs of others as your own, and fearing the effects that your condition may have on your life, such as being rejected for healthcare.
Self-stigma can lead to the following:
- low self-esteem
- reduced functionality in day-to-day life
- feelings of depression, worthlessness, embarrassment, and shame
- suicidal thoughts
When people facing addiction also experience self-stigma and its effects, they are significantly less likely to pursue treatment and achieve recovery.
Ways To Help Reduce Substance Abuse Stigma
Education and compassion are essential factors in reducing addiction stigma. They are also helpful ways to support the people in your life who may be battling drug abuse.
Misinformation, stereotypes, and assumptions about others are some of the strongest influences on addiction stigma. Educating yourself about the disease of addiction is one of the best ways to combat this.
There are several common signs of addiction to look for that can indicate someone you love needs help. Catching substance abuse early leads to greater success in recovery.
Understand that addiction is not a moral failing. By treating your loved one with compassion, you can increase their chances of seeking care.
It’s also crucial to remember that a person with a substance use disorder is not weak or beyond help. With access to proper treatment, recovery is possible.
Other ways to support a loved one with an SUD include:
- attending sober events together
- providing your loved one with resources and information on recovery
- discussing your feelings about addiction in therapy
- donating time or money to substance abuse nonprofits
Words Matter: Using Positive Language
The language and phrasing you use when talking to or about people with substance use disorders is one of the most critical elements surrounding social stigma.
Removing outdated, stigmatizing language from your vocabulary is essential to avoid hurting the people experiencing these issues.
Words and phrases to avoid include:
- alcohol or drug habit
- substance abuser
Instead, focus on person-first language, such as “person with an alcohol use disorder,” and refer to a person receiving treatment as “in recovery” instead of “clean.”
Find Addiction Treatment Today
If you or a loved one is battling drug addiction or alcohol abuse, you are not alone. Contact us today to receive compassionate help and resources for recovery.
Published on June 14, 2023
Free Rehab Centers aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.
These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- National Library of Medicine
- National Library of Medicine
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)