In light of our last blog “Will the Stigma of Addiction Prevent this Much Needed Rehab from Being Built?” we take a look at the reasons why addiction still carries such a large stigma and what we can do to end it.
By definition, stigma is “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” And the stigma of addiction is one of the biggest reasons why people suffering from addiction do not seek help.
Even though the American Medical Association (AMA) classified alcohol abuse as a disease in 1966, and drug addiction as a disease in 1974, many people around the world still believe that people with addiction are just in fact weak-willed, lazy, or that they simply don’t want to get better. But what about people with heart disease? Schizophrenia? Cirrhosis? All of these are diseases that do not have a cure, but when they are caught in time, there are lifestyle changes or in some cases medicines that can allow these people to lead relatively normal lives for many years despite these diseases. So what makes addiction different in the eyes of society?
“Reasons” that Addiction is Still So Stigmatised
Apparently scientific proof isn’t enough to rid addiction of such deep set stigma, and here are a few reasons why, and how society needs to change in order to allow addicts the help they truly need.
For so many years, addicts were portrayed as lower class citizens. They were depicted in movies as staggering drunks, or people living on the streets. They were labeled ‘junkies’ or ‘druggies’. But addiction doesn’t discriminate and even the highest Wall Street banker could be suffering as a high-functioning-addict behind his professional façade. When people realise that the old stereotype of an addict isn’t true, perhaps it will start to lessen some of the stigma.
2. Addicts do not proactively seek help
Addiction is a disease that disrupts the person’s ability to make logical decisions, meaning they often won’t seek help until they have experienced something life threatening, or have hit ‘rock bottom’ in another way. However, before the disease gets to take hold so deeply, some addicts know that they are slipping into the clutches of their substance, but are scared to ask for help in fear of being labeled a ‘junkie’ or a ‘druggie’. The fear of the labels put on addicts can actually accelerate their addiction. Until society removes this stigma, more and more addicts will find themselves facing deadly consequences before asking for help.
3. Incorrect diagnosis and treatment
Most general practitioners are not well versed in the field of addiction, and even mental health practitioners have been known to turn away addicts seeking help for depression or other mental health issues ‘until they stop using’, blaming the drug for the disorders they are experiencing. Alcohol and drugs can indeed cause bouts of sadness or depression, but the depression or other mental illness could also be the cause of the substance abuse. Dual-diagnosis is very common within the addiction community, and medical professionals need further education on how to properly diagnose and treat these problems.
4. Addicts get criminalised
Addicts who get caught with possession of a drug are sent to jail, but the drugs are indeed a part of their disease of addiction. A drug addict knows that heroin is illegal and that it is harming their health, but there is a part of the brain affected by the disease that can think of nothing else but getting that next fix. And while many countries around the world are now trying to focus more on treatment and recovery than prison, there is still far more money being spent on prisons and ‘criminal justice’ than on recovery.
5. Negative reactions even after treatment
Unfortunately, even an addict who has been sober for more than 10 years can still face negative reactions from people when they find out about his/her addiction problems. People want to know ‘why don’t you drink?’ or try to encourage them to partake in various ‘party favours’. If someone had lung cancer, would you encourage them to smoke a cigarette? Would you look down at them with disgust for getting lung cancer in the first place? Much of the general public doesn’t understand the disease, and therefore looks down upon it.
Addiction is a Disease
Until people can truly understand that addiction is not a choice, those suffering from addiction will continue to suffer in silence, and overdoses and deaths from drug or alcohol-related diseases will not cease.
And while it is wishful thinking to believe that tomorrow we will all just wake up and the stigma of addiction will be gone, there are some things we can do help alleviate the stigma faster.
Getting Rid of Addiction’s Stigma
1. Be proud of recovery
Ending the stigma can start in your own heart. Whether it’s yourself or a loved one that is in recovery, be proud of the challenges you or they have overcome. Know that addiction cannot be helped, but that recovery is an on-going battle that non-addicts will never understand the difficulty of. Be proud of how far you (or your loved one) have come.
2. Spread the word
Addiction support groups have grown from 20 people in the basement of a church to 100,000+ people coming together from all over the world in online forums and networks. But don’t let the talking stop there. Support is indeed very helpful, but spreading the word to non-addiction communities is important too. The more that people know about the truth of addiction, the less they will stigmatise it.
3. Help others
If you or a loved one has been through addiction treatment, you will know the signs better than anyone else. Whether being a support for someone else in recovery, or helping an addict seek treatment, knowing that there is someone there for them could mean the difference between life or death to an addict. If you’re unsure of how to help, talk to a professional.