Although we’ve come a long way in our views about addiction, there is still a serious stigma attached to it. A 2018 poll by AP-NORC found that while 53 percent of Americans view addiction as a disease that needs treatment, negative views of addiction remain common. For example, 44 percent said they thought addiction showed a lack of discipline or willpower and 33 percent said it was a character flaw. This stigma has real-life consequences, since it compounds the shame people with substance use disorders already feel, prevents them from seeking help, and makes the public prefer punishment to treatment. Although no individual can significantly reduce the stigma of addiction, we can each do our part. The following are some ways you can help reduce the stigma of substance use disorders.
First, it’s important to learn as much as you can about addiction. You may feel that since you, or someone close to you, have struggled with substance use yourself, then you know all you need to know. While that certainly gives you valuable insight, many people who have been personally affected by addiction aren’t aware of the complex causes of addiction. In fact, addiction science is still relatively new and researchers are discovering more all the time.
If you don’t want to spread misleading information, you have to do your own research. You might want to start with oververviews of addiction by reliable sources, such as information available on the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. These typically share research-based information, about which there is broad—but not total—consensus. You can learn basic things like the role of genetics, mental health, childhood environment, and trauma play in addiction, as well as which treatment methods are backed by scientific evidence.
Beyond that, there are many good books about addiction written for a general audience. Some good ones include Unbroken Brain by Maia Szalavitz, In the Land of Hungry Ghosts, by Gabor Mate, and High Price, by Carl Hart. There are also a lot of great addiction and recovery memoirs out right now. These can be especially valuable for people who have never personally experienced addiction.
In the course of researching addiction, you will inevitably change some of your attitudes, but it’s also important to make sure that new attitudes inform your behavior. For example, you might understand, rationally, that addiction is caused by genes, mental health issues, and so on, and still feel judgmental toward someone with a substance use disorder. Additionally, even if you have struggled with addiction yourself, you may not necessarily have a compassionate attitude toward other people who are also struggling with addiction. In fact, sometimes people in recovery are even more judgmental, especially if they feel a lot of shame about their own substance use. If this sounds like you, it’s possible that you need to talk to a therapist to work on your own issues around shame and self-criticism. This will help you feel better about yourself, and it will help you feel more connected to others in recovery.
How you talk and write about addiction and people with substance use disorders signals your beliefs and feelings about addiction. Avoid using language that’s judgmental, dismissive, or dehumanizing. Certainly never use derogatory terms like “junkie” or “crackhead,” but also be careful about other labels like “addict” or “alcoholic,” since they tend to reduce a person to their worst quality. Instead, remember that a substance use disorder is a disease and use “person-first language.” So, instead of calling someone an opioid addict, it’s better to say “person with an opioid use disorder.”
Since language is fluid and can be implicitly negative as well as explicitly negative, it may help to adjust your mental model of what someone with a substance use disorder looks like. We all carry some stereotype of addiction and these may not bear much resemblance to reality. Keep in mind that addiction is largely invisible, since many people go to great lengths to hide their substance use issues. When you talk about someone struggling with substance use, you may be talking about a friend or loved one; perhaps someone who is in the room. Always remember that you might be talking about your best friend, your sibling, your child, or your parent.
In addition to watching your own language around addiction, don’t be afraid to say something when you hear others use stigmatizing language or when you hear or read misleading information. Most people who repeat inaccurate information or use stigmatizing language just don’t know any better and are simply repeating what they’ve heard. Let them know—respectfully—that what they’ve said could be construed as offensive and damaging. Correct any misinformation so they can at least not plead ignorance in the future. Even if you don’t change the person’s mind, you might change the minds of some other people in the room or at least expose them to new information. This doesn’t only apply to casual conversation, either. If you happen to see stigmatizing language or wrong information elsewhere, such as the news media or social media, reach out—again, respectfully—and let someone know. Most of the time, content creators want to be objective and avoid giving offense, so you may be doing them a favor.
As noted above, part of the reason the stigma of addiction persists is that addiction is largely invisible, so the the most visible examples of people with substance use issues are the homeless, the unemployed, and the incarcerated. If appropriate, sharing your own experiences with addiction and recovery can put a real human face on addiction. People are typically persuaded by positive examples: both by people who have obvious positive qualities despite their substance use issues and by people who have recovered from addiction. You might be the example that disrupts someone’s negative stereotype. You may also be the example that gives someone with a substance use problem the courage to ask for help.
The stigma of addiction is real and it stands in the way of more people getting help. While you can’t get rid of the stigma on your own, you can certainly do your part. Educate yourself, monitor your own beliefs and language, and correct misinformation when you hear it. At Enlightened Solutions, we understand that people are complex and addiction is just one aspect of a person’s life. Our holistic approach to treatment aims to heal the whole person—mind, body, and spirit. To learn more, call us today at 833-801-5483 or explore our website.
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