Moving Past the Stigma of Addiction, Part 1

Many people struggling with an active addiction deny that they even have a problem because of the stigma attached to substance abuse. Unfortunately, that also means that the specialized treatment they so desperately need – their key to getting better – is put off even longer.

As Dr. Vivek Murthy said while he served as the US Surgeon General, “Many people are scared that they will lose their jobsnor be ostracized by their friends or even be looked at differently by their doctors if they admit that they have a problem with addiction and in that type of environment people don’t feel comfortable coming forward and asking for help.”

Stigma Due to Negative Public Opinion

“While drug addiction and mental illness are both chronic, treatable health conditions, the American public is more likely to think of addiction as a moral failing than a medical condition.”

~ Dr. Colleen Barry, PhD, MPP, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Despite all of the available science and the opinions of medical, mental health, and substance abuse professionals, there is still a stigma attached to anyone struggling with problematic substance use.

In fact, a 2013 study conducted by the Bloomberg School of Public Health revealed that the general public holds a considerably worse opinion about alcoholics and drug addicts than they do about people with other mental health issues.

How widespread is this negative public perception?

When people narrow-mindedly view addiction as anything other than a serious and treatable illness, then sufferers are subject to distrust, prejudice, and a lack of both empathy and understanding.

Published in the October 2014 issue of Psychiatric Services, the study reveals:

  • Only 22% of respondents said that they were willing to work alongside someone addicted to drugs.
  • For comparison, 62% were agreeable to working with someone with a mental illness.
  • 64% believe that all employers should be able to deny jobs to drug addicts.
  • Just 25% feel the same about people with mental illnesses.
  • 43% think that addicts should not have the same health benefits as everyone else.
  • Just 21% were opposed to equal insurance coverage for the mentally ill.

This means a serious lack of support for any private or public sector programs or policies that help alcohol/drug-dependent people find jobs, places to live, and health insurance.

The Effect of Stigma on the Individual

“Toxic shame is unbearable and always necessitates a cover-up, a false self. Since one feels his true self is defective and flawed, one needs a false self… As a false self, one tries to be more than human or less than human. Toxic shame is the greatest form of learned domestic violence there is. It destroys human life. Toxic shame is the core of most forms of emotional illness.”

~ John Bradshaw, author of Healing the Shame That Binds You

At some point, every addict or alcoholic tries to quit, usually under pressure from their family, their job, or perhaps even the Court. They make promises that “this time will be different”. But this is a disease that is bigger than willpower.

And when they inevitably relapse – even it was a one-time, short-term “slip” – they face serious consequences in every area of their life, legal, professional, and personal. But these are often seen as punishments for messing up yet again.

The thought of “punishment” implies that what they did was wrong – i.e., they made poor choices. This mistaken implication of addiction as a choice has a harmful effect on the person’s self-esteem. They may even feel extremely anxious or become depressed because of it.

And what happens to people with addictive personalities when they are struggling with anxiety or depression? They self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In Part 2, we will look at how to overcome the stigma and move forward in recovery.

As one of the top addiction recovery services in Southern California, Chapman House Treatment Centers understands how the stigma attached to addiction interferes with successful recovery. This is why Chapman House’s clinical staff uses evidenced-based treatment protocols to address SUD as a disease.

by Albert Fontenot