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Even though one in ten adults have suffered from a substance use disorder at some point in their lives, many still stigmatize addiction and those who experience it. Stigma is a problem with many health conditions that can ultimately affect whether or not individuals end up seeking help, or even if they believe they need help in the first place. Substance use disorders are prevalent, but many individuals are still not utilizing treatment options available to them. Little progress has been made to address the stigma of addiction as individuals continue to be blamed for their disease.

Defining Stigma

Stigma is a set of negative beliefs that a group or individual holds about a particular topic. Stigmas are a significant cause of discrimination and human rights abuses. Individuals that experience stigma are seen as less than because of their differences. Stigma does not derive from facts; it comes from assumptions, judgments, and generalizations. It is a learned behavior passed from person to person, having no basis in rational thought.

The Stigma of Seeking Help

Our healthcare system has many effective tools and resources that can help many health conditions, including various treatment programs for individuals with substance use disorders. However, these options for treatment are underutilized, and many believe this is because of false, negative beliefs held about addiction. Untreated drug and alcohol abuse may result in more severe health conditions and may ultimately lead to death, depending on the severity of abuse. Various reasons contribute to an individual acquiring an addiction, many of which are due to factors outside an individual’s control. Seeking help for addiction should be recognized as an attempt to better oneself, not as something to be ashamed of.

The Stigma of Recovery Being a “Straight Path”

Stigma occurs in the healthcare setting, as some healthcare providers may view an alcohol and/or drug problem as the fault of an individual. Many rehabilitation centers emphasize having “dry” facilities, which means if any substance is consumed on the property, that individual would be removed from the facility entirely.

While this may make sense for some cases, it also takes its toll on individuals who are genuinely trying to get clean but may relapse during the process. The stigma that recovery is a straight, narrow path is unfair. Stigmatizing an individual who struggles to maintain recovery can further increase one’s feelings of shame and regret, causing them to sink further into addiction. Recovery comes in many different paths, and there is no one way to sobriety.

The Stigma of Addiction As a Defining Factor

Many people believe that by admitting they have a problem, they must also concede that they are not fit for certain life tasks. Symptoms of alcohol and other drug addiction may include impaired judgment or erratic behavior, resulting in legal problems or relationship consequences. While this may be true in some cases, it is not a fact for all people that experience addiction. People will reject others with addiction and/or mental illness because they look at one factor of an entire person with a narrow and negative focus. We all make mistakes in life. It’s part of what makes us human.

Stigma can be a projection from individuals that have not come to terms with their own shortcomings. Many people are not equipped with the understanding or compassion to interact with someone suffering from withdrawal or other drug effects. Regardless, if someone is showing outward signs of addiction or mental illness, that is no reason to deny them a sense of basic dignity and respect. We should treat everyone with compassion. Addiction and mental illness are not defining factors for an individual to be treated any differently.

The Solution to Stigma

The most proactive way to reduce the negative stigma that surrounds addiction is through education and humanizing interactions. Almost all of us have seen addiction in some way, whether we have experienced it through family members, friends, stories, or personally. It is not uncommon, nor should it be treated as so. Becoming educated may look like listening to podcasts on different addiction topics or watching informative documentaries.

Taking an informed stance on harm reduction, recognizing warning signs, or knowing how to explain addiction to someone else in a non-stigmatized manner can also be helpful. It is vital that we continue to talk about addiction so when warning signs and symptoms arise in yourself or someone else, it is easier to bring awareness and attention to them. If you are an advocate for addiction recovery, make it known. Look for areas to show advocacy through positive messaging, programs, and community spaces where you can connect with others in an impactful way.

When you engage in conversation, be mindful of the language you are using. For example, refrain from labeling people as “addicts” or “junkies” and instead view them with compassion as someone who is “suffering from a substance abuse disorder.” If we all aim to educate ourselves and the language we use to discuss addiction, we can significantly reduce stigma over time.

Often, society is quick to make false, baseless assumptions and judgments about others that may be different from themselves, something we call “stigma.” We must recognize that the stigmas surrounding addiction aren’t helpful, as they can lead individuals to avoid treatment or refuse to identify their problem in the first place. It is essential that we address these stigmas as they come and acknowledge that they are opinions that have been learned over time, not facts. Addiction and/or mental illness do not have to be a defining factor in one’s life. There is no one road to recovery from an addiction or mental illness. At West Coast Recovery Centers, we pride ourselves on addressing the harm in these stigmas. We are dedicated to educating individuals about addiction and creating safe and comfortable spaces to have discussions about these topics. For more information, please give us a call at (760) 492-6509.