Overcoming the Stigma of Addiction

Choosing to enter an addiction treatment program is difficult. For people experiencing addiction, it requires strength and humility to ask for help, which isn’t an easy thing to do. Frequently, the stigma of addiction prevents someone from seeking treatment. Often, a person suffering from addiction is nervous or scared about revealing the addiction.

Obstacles to treatment include leaving family and getting time off from a job. It’s hard to explain why there will be a prolonged absence without revealing the whole issue. The person in need and sometimes their families will search out any excuse to avoid treatment, because then the problem would be revealed. This avoidance makes addiction more difficult to treat.

The Prevalence of Addiction Stigma

Why is there such a prevailing stigma of addiction? Deeply negative social statuses surround drug and alcohol abuse. A study published in 2007showed that an aspect of this discrimination, namely the stigmatization of users, creates many barriers to treatment and medical care.

Stigmatization is used as a form of social control. Stigmas are forced upon people by a wide range of sources, such as society, family, friends, law enforcement and the media.

People in the depths of drug addiction often incur jail time for drug possession, and sometimes for crimes committed as part of drug-seeking behavior. The stigmas imposed as a result of a criminal record contribute to a harsh and unforgiving perception of substance abusers as criminals, even if the crime was simply possession of drugs intended for personal use.

Addiction is a Disease

This stigma overlooks the fact that addiction is a disease, not a matter of willpower. Many people who suffer from addiction are people with strong character who developed a dependence, with no intentions of hurting themselves or others. A substance abuser can be from any walk of life, at any time in life. When you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, it doesn’t mean failure and it doesn’t mean a flawed moral character.

The stigma of addiction tries to label this as a failure, but other chronic, relapsing diseases like diabetes don’t cause the same embarrassment or shame for the person or their family. We—as a society and as individuals—need to ask ourselves: If you or a loved one had diabetes, would you keep that a secret for fear of shame or embarrassment?

The answer is: It’s likely you wouldn’t. You would openly look for help and support and seek the treatment necessary to control the disease and create a healthy future for yourself. People would respond with compassion and care. Addiction is a disease, just like diabetes, requiring treatment.

Understanding and Compassion

As more famous people and prominent public figures such as musicians and actors reveal their own struggles with addiction and publicly enter treatment, the stigma of addiction slowly falls away. While stigma hasn’t been completely eliminated, public understanding and compassion are moving in the right direction.

It’s important as a family member of a person suffering from addiction to support loved ones who are dealing with addiction by showing you care while they are in recovery. One of the best ways to eliminate the stigma of addiction is the open support of those in recovery, encouraging them and recognizing the struggles of overcoming addiction.

Condemnation and keeping stigma alive won’t help cure addiction and can make the situation worse, but treatment without shame will help. Don’t dwell on the past, but look to a brighter future where the hope and hard work of a person in recovery can make the troubles of the past a faded memory.

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