How Do We Address the Stigma Surrounding Addiction?
There is a great deal of stigma surrounding drug and alcohol addiction. Stigma can come from a few sources:
- A lack of awareness of something.
- A lack of education about something.
- An unpleasant experience regarding something or someone.
When people aren’t aware or properly educated about something (like addiction), they may adopt preconceived notions about it. When someone has an unpleasant experience because of an addict, they may come to believe that all people who struggle with drugs and alcohol are likely to cause similar, unpleasant experiences.
How can the stigma attached to addiction be reduced? In many ways, removing addiction stigma will depend on educating people on what addiction is and how they can help addicts get better.
What is Addiction? - Defining Addiction; Removing Stigma and Stereotype
A good definition of addiction comes from the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “A compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance having harmful physical, psychological, or social effects and typically causing well-defined symptoms (such as anxiety, irritability, tremors, or nausea) upon withdrawal or abstinence.”
As one can see from the definition, it is evident that addiction is not only a medical issue but a spiritual issue as well, a severe crisis of the mind, body, and soul. Addiction is not a criminal inclination nor a character flaw. Addiction does not merit the stigmas often attached to it. It’s not simply a poor choice, it’s not a sign of weakness, and it’s not an indication of low social merit or worth. All of these additional descriptions are the result of prejudices brought to bear against addicts. These prejudices are where stigma begins.
When national divisiveness is at an all-time high, the inclination may be to judge addicts or criticize them for their behavior. The inclination may be to find ways to see them differently. Or to equate that they are addicts because of some other factor about them that is different from us.
But doing that is also flawed because addiction is not only a horrible health problem that does not fit any of the stigmas mentioned above, but addiction can happen to anyone, precluding the validity of any racial or demographical stereotypes that might be attached to someone who struggles with such a habit.
When addiction is carefully examined and fully understood, it becomes apparent that this is a problem that can happen to anyone. There’s no sense in stereotyping addiction because anyone can fall prey to this habit. No financial attainment, background, living situation, demographic, age, sex, or other defining factors can act as guaranteed protection from the risk of addiction.
The opioid epidemic of the 21st century is teaching the American people that addiction is not just a “poor man’s problem.” That erroneous theory was quickly disproven when the opiate crisis struck down in mostly white America. In fact, white Americans were so hard-hit by the opioid epidemic that the life expectancy of U.S. white persons declined for the first time in years.
When the definition of addiction is carefully examined, when people study the subject and get a better idea of what addiction actually is, they realize that this is a unique problem that affects everyone differently. A great deal of compassion usually ensues from a better understanding of addiction, as well as a stronger willingness and desire to help.
How Do We Help Addicts?
When people feel more capable of addressing a problem, they are less likely to complain about that problem or vilify it. As luck would have it, one of the ways to reduce the stigma and stereotypes attached to addiction is simply to help addicts. When addicts are helped through drug treatment programs and come out of such programs clean and sober and ready to tackle life anew, people quickly realize that addiction was never a character flaw, a mark of inferiority, or a criminal inclination.
Drug rehabilitation restores to addicts their true being, who they were long before they became addicts. Drug rehabs give recovering addicts the opportunity to achieve a happy and sober life, giving them the chance to experience a better, healthier, more comfortable, and more successful condition. Once drug use and drinking are stripped away, it becomes clear that the individual was a good person all along, yet they merely had a crippling affliction that was severely holding them back in life. Now, clean and sober, they can go out and achieve their ambitions and create goodness in the world rather than sadness.
If you know someone struggling with addiction, please do not let them be harshly stigmatized by others. Do not accept verbal stereotypes of them or harsh condemnations of them. Instead, seek to find out ways you can learn more about your loved one’s predicament. Please do your best to get them into a treatment center.
With knowledge, compassion, understanding, and rehabilitation programs, we will eliminate the addiction crisis. Stigma and stereotype have no place in our efforts to resolve the addiction crisis in America.
A Note on Additional Resources
Plenty of resources can be found for reducing the stigma and stereotypes of addiction. In 2001, the Danya Institute published a thorough guide on reducing addiction stigma in virtually any environment. The American Society of Addiction Medicine also published a meaningful paper on how addiction professionals, employers, family members, and friends of addicts can reduce addiction stigmas. The National Center for Biotechnology Information also has several papers on this subject.