They did it to themselves. They made poor decisions. They weren’t strong enough to kick their dependency. These are just a few ways in which society as a whole has been taught to see addiction. Addiction has been portrayed more as a personal and moral failure than as a disease and health care issue. The truth is, addiction (or substance disorder) is a disease that affects a person’s brain and behavior. The stigma associated with addiction is pervasive throughout our society and prevents us from properly treating and supporting those trying to overcome substance disorder—decreasing the chances of successful recovery and hurting our society as a whole.
How you see addiction
Addiction is not what you’ve seen portrayed in movies, on TV or even in the news. You may see addiction as a homeless person who has lost everything to their desperate need for a fix. You may see addiction as the young adult who steals from their own family to get their next hit. And you may see addiction as the raging alcoholic who screams at their partner, trashes the house and then storms out to the bar for another shot. These are not accurate representations of addiction for the majority of those suffering from substance abuse disorder every day.
Addiction can be only on the weekend. Addiction can be needing just a little something to get through each day. Addiction might have a great job, a house in a nice neighborhood and happy kids. Addiction may never drink and drive. For many addicts, it’s hard to recognize they have a substance disorder because they don’t see themselves in what the stigma has portrayed. Society’s stigma of addiction alone can prevent someone from recognizing that they need help. And, if they do realize they need help, they may not want to reach out because they’re afraid of what society will think.
The stigma of addiction is commonplace in our society, and there is a deep shame that comes with admitting you have a problem and need help. In 2018, about 20.3 million people in the United States age 12 and up had a substance abuse disorder. This accounts for about six percent of the total US population and is a larger section of society that you might initially think. For comparison, there were approximately 1.7 million new cases of cancer diagnosed that same year. However, only 3.7 million of those who reported a substance abuse disorder were also receiving any treatment. Why is that number so low?
There is a lot of shame in admitting there’s a problem and seeking help. People see the stigmatized representation of addiction and are afraid that others will treat them differently. The important thing to remember is that addiction is a disease. You wouldn’t fault someone for seeking cancer treatment, taking insulin to control diabetes or medication to relieve IBS symptoms. So, we shouldn’t judge those who are taking control of their substance disorder by seeking treatment.
Unfortunately, society still has a long way to go. In a recent study of 2,002 US adults who are in recovery, researchers found that the stigma of addiction is still experienced. Revelations from the study include:
- 48.8 percent of the people surveyed said that others ‘assumed I would relapse’
- 38 percent said they felt like, at times, they were being held to a higher standard than other people
- 35.7 percent said people avoided them
- 34.4 percent reported being disrespected
- 24.9 percent were rejected by family or friends
- 16.2 percent said they were denied employment
- 15.2 percent said that it was hard to get medical insurance
You can see why people may dread asking for help, worried that they will be condemned and ostracized by society. When we deter those with substance disorder from getting help, we’re forcing them to try to get sober on their own, which can be incredibly difficult and painful, and will often be unsuccessful. Severe withdrawal can even cause hallucinations, fevers, seizures and confusion. As a society, we need to allow those with addiction to seek medical treatment without worry of stigma.
Importance of empathy and forgiveness
An important first step is acknowledging the roles of empathy and forgiveness. We need to start removing the stigma of addiction and look at it as a healthcare issue. Empathy will help us see ourselves in addicts, humanizing the issue as a disease and making it something to solve together, instead of pushing those with substance dependency away. When we abandon our family and friends to their addiction, we relegate them to fighting the disease alone, and increase their feeling of shame and self-doubt. Additionally, addicts need to forgive themselves. Addiction is a disease and punishing yourself for something that is arguably out of your control doesn’t take you down the path to recovery. Accept that you’re worthy of a healthy and happy life and use that feeling to drive your resolve to get sober.
Squash the stigma
Addition is a disease. By perpetuating myths and the stigma of substance disorder we are condemning addicts to, at the very least, a more difficult recovery path—and most likely to hiding in shame and avoiding treatment. Having so many afraid to ask for help is hurting our society as a whole, and removing the stigma is the only way that we can help people properly recognize what addiction really looks like, understand that it’s not their fault, that they need care and to take the next step on the path toward recovery.