Changing Addiction Stigma: Is It Time?

Professionals in the science and healthcare communities view addiction as a chronic disease of the brain disease that changes its structure and how it works. They also see it as a treatable disease.

How the general public views addiction, however, is not the same, as studies like this one show.

Researchers with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health conducted a survey in recent years that offered a snapshot of public opinion of addiction, and the results were revealing.

According to the study, people struggling with addiction are more likely to be seen unfavorably than people with mental health disorders. According to the survey’s researchers, the condition of addiction is considered a “moral failing.” They also found that respondents were highly against policies aimed at helping addicts in their recovery. The study suggested that the stories showed in the media, which usually show people who have become homeless or contracted diseases because of their substance abuse, have shaped public opinion about addiction as well.

“Missing, they say, are inspiring stories of people who, with effective treatment, are able to overcome addiction and live drug-free for many years,” the study’s authors wrote.

Instead of seeing addiction as a disease, or even a treatable illness, social stigmas attached to addiction also promote the perception that substance abusers choose to continue to use despite the consequences. Such a view, however, is often inaccurate and harmful in many cases and can lead to users feeling rejected, ridiculed, and discouraged from seeking the treatment they need.

Changing addiction stigma will not happen overnight, but it is important to reshape the discussion about it.

Addiction Defined

An understanding of what addiction is can help change addiction stigma, observers say. Below are two medical definitions of addiction.

The first is from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which defines addiction as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain; they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long-lasting and can lead to many harmful, often self-destructive, behaviors.”

The organization adds, “Addiction occurs when a person cannot control the impulse to use drugs even when there are negative consequences—the defining characteristic of addiction.”

The second definition comes from the American Society of Addiction Medicine. It defines addiction as “the primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestation.

“This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.”

Fear Spreads Addiction Stigmas

There are various reasons why addiction stigma is common and widespread, but fear is among the most powerful ones. The powerful emotion of fear stops so many people from addressing their problems with alcohol and drug use. Some of these fears are not imagined.

People in Active Addiction May Face Stigma-Related Fears of:

  • Rejection. The possibility of being turned away by family, friends, coworkers, and members in other social circles may keep some people away from seeking treatment.
  • Being labeled. “Addict,” “crackhead,” “pothead,” “junkie,” and other derogatory labels keep many people in addiction out of treatment. Disparaging labels also promote stereotypes that make it difficult to separate the person from the behavior and the disease.
  • Discrimination. People in active addiction and recovery may fear their disease can lead being denied a job, adequate housing, and other things, such as registering to vote or getting a driver’s license–even receiving health insurance.
  • Incarceration. Many addicts, alcoholics, and other substance abusers avoid rehab because they do want to risk becoming a part of the criminal justice system. Addictive disorders often put people on the path to facing jail or prison time for drug offenses, which are often criminalized.

Portraying addiction in a negative light promotes attitudes that discourage support for benefits for people dependent on drugs, from insurance and housing to employment policies and more.

Why is it Important to Change Addiction Stigma?

Millions of people in the US and all over the globe are struggling with substance abuse disorders, so it is a public health issue that is here to stay. The public is already challenged with changing who is considered an “addict” or an “alcoholic” as these days it really could be anyone. Substance abusers range from the very young to elderly, from the person on the street to the top business executive at a company.

Drugs remain a significant threat to the public just about everywhere. Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death among Americans under age 50, and in the US, the nation’s opioid overdose crisis, which has already claimed thousands of lives, is projected to kill nearly half a million people across the US over the next decade, according to a June 2017 STAT forecast.

Lawmakers, law enforcement, and other public officials remain determined to implement strategies that will effectively curb addiction on our society. However, fighting addiction is a puzzle with many pieces.

Having citizens who are educated about the addiction is a major piece because having an accurate perception and understanding of addiction increases awareness and increases the possibility of changes in policy can come about that could lower the help people get the care they need.

“If you can educate the public that these are treatable conditions, we will see higher levels of support for policy changes that benefit people with mental illness and drug addiction,” said Beth McGinty, Ph.D., MS, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who led the John Hopkins study.

Where to Start?

The everyday language used to talk about addiction treatment and recovery is a good place to address social stigmas, say advocates in the field.

The Terminology Used is a Barrier to Addiction Treatment for Many People Because:

  • It encourages people to hold substance abusers up to judgment about their use and abuse.
  • It can leave the impression that people in recovery are helpless or that there is no hope for them.
  • It detracts from the growth people in recovery make.

Advocates urge people to demonstrate compassion and understanding for addicts and recovering addicts by making an effort to use people-first language, which focuses on the person instead of their condition or disability.

An example of this is, “a person with a cocaine addiction,” not a “coke addict” or “coke head.”

Some advocates say that terms such as “addict,” “abuser,” “habit,” “and getting (staying) clean” can promote addiction stigma.

If ever in doubt and if possible, ask the person you are talking about what terms they would prefer you use when speaking to them about their recovery experiences.

Find Freedom in Recovery With CHAT Vistas

Unfavorable views of addiction create addiction stigmas that undermine people who are struggling with substance abuse and hurts alcohol and drug recovery efforts overall. However, many people do understand that addiction is a disease and want people with addiction to receive the necessary help.

If you or someone you love is suffering from addiction and would benefit from learning more about treatment, call California Highlands Addiction Treatment Vistas at 855-910-1176 today. One of our recovery specialists can offer a free consultation and assessment to help you or your loved one understand what treatment options are available so you can begin the journey back to health, happiness, and fulfillment.

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