In the worst cases, the stigma of people with drug addiction leads to them being ostracized from their families and communities. Some research has found that people who live in highly stigmatizing environments are less likely to seek treatment for several reasons, including fear of losing a job or a relationship. The good news is that there are several practices that can help reduce the stigma of people with drug addiction.
Know the Facts About Drug Addiction
Addiction is a chronic condition — meaning that overcoming addiction will require lifelong treatment and care. It’s not a moral failing, but a brain disorder that changes how people experience pleasure, meaning they can’t resist drug-seeking behavior despite negative consequences like the loss of jobs and relationships.
Stigma often stems from people’s lack of understanding about addiction and its effects. When you don’t understand the underlying causes, it’s easy to make assumptions and jump to conclusions — such as thinking someone is a terrible person or patting themselves on the back for not making the same choices. The more we know the facts, the less room there is for misconceived assumptions.
Understand That Addiction Is a Disease
Addiction is widely stigmatized because it’s not always associated with physical symptoms, which makes people think there is no reason for someone to continue using drugs. But addiction changes the brain in ways that make quitting extremely difficult without medical treatment — and research has shown that many people can’t succeed through willpower alone. Understanding addiction as a disease can help people realize that drug use is not a choice.
Avoid Using the Word “Addict”
When you label someone as an addict, it can make them feel like they are fundamentally flawed or inferior to others — which increases the stigma surrounding addiction. When asked about their identity, most individuals with addiction prefer terms such as “person with a substance-use disorder”, “someone in recovery” or just a person who uses drugs. For the sake of other people’s feelings, it is best to avoid using the word addict entirely.
Recognize the Role of Shame
Shame can be a major factor in people’s decisions not to get help for their addiction. People with addiction are more likely to try and conceal their drug use from others, even if it means sacrificing things like employment opportunities. When people feel ashamed of who they are, reaching out for support becomes an almost impossible task. If you recognize the role of shame in addiction, then you will know that helping someone overcome this barrier is a key part of overcoming stigma and motivating them to recover.
Focus on the Inherent Challenges of Recovery, Not the Financial Burden
The fear of loss is a significant barrier to seeking addiction treatment. People may be afraid they will lose their job, friends, or valued relationships if they admit to a substance use disorder, which can make overcoming stigma and getting help seem like an insurmountable task. That’s why it’s crucial to acknowledge the many inherent challenges of recovery without highlighting the financial burden. In other words, focus on “the gift” in recovery rather than “the sacrifice”. Click here to understand the treatment options for people struggling with drug or alcohol addiction.
Create a Non-Judgmental Environment
One way to reduce the stigma surrounding addiction is to create an environment that makes it okay for people to discuss their feelings without being judged. By taking the stigma out of addiction you can help people feel less ashamed about who they are, which will motivate them to seek treatment and support early on to begin recovery. This reduces the risk of relapse and helps people get back on track.
Do you know someone with a substance use disorder? If so, it’s important to address how you think about addiction to reduce the stigma associated with it. Rather than thinking of drug use as a choice or moral failing, use these seven tips to understand that addiction is a disease that requires medical treatment to overcome.