Addiction is a chronic but treatable medical condition. Often unintentionally, many people still talk about addiction in ways that are stigmatizing—meaning they use words that can portray someone with a substance use disorder in a shameful way, which may discourage them from seeking treatment. To reduce harmful stigma and negativity around substance use disorders and encourage people to obtain the help they need, it is essential to change the way society views addiction. The first step is to understand why this stigma exists, and how we all can help to remove it.
What is stigma?
Stigma can be defined as an attribute that is deeply discrediting, reducing the bearer from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one. Stigma about people with substance use disorders might include inaccurate or unfounded beliefs that they are dangerous, incapable of managing treatment, or at fault for their condition.
Where does stigma come from?
Stigma around addiction may come from old and inaccurate ideas, or fear of things that are different or misunderstood. Research has shown that public attitudes and beliefs about addiction are also affected by how it is presented in the media. For example, TV shows and movies often portray characters with substance use disorders negatively. These depictions can increase fear, pity and even anger toward people with substance use disorders.
In addition, people with substance use disorders may feel ashamed of their addiction and their difficulty in stopping drugs or alcohol. This may discourage them from reaching out to others or seeking treatment.
The truth about addiction
Addiction was once considered to be due to a weakness in a person’s character. But decades of scientific research have demonstrated that addiction is not a choice. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it is a brain disorder that involves functional changes to brain circuits involved in reward, stress, and self-control. These brain changes can make it extraordinarily difficult for a person to resist the urge to continue using drugs, even if their drug use is causing problems at home, work, or school. The good news is that treatment can help set the brain on a path to recovery.
Addiction is a lot like other diseases, such as type 2 diabetes. Both disrupt the normal, healthy functioning of the body, both have serious harmful effects for those affected, both are influenced by the environments the person lives in and both are, in many cases, preventable and treatable. If left untreated, they can get worse and may lead to disabilities and death. Just like with many other health conditions, people with substance use disorders can recover and continue to lead healthy lives with the appropriate support.
A number of factors, most of them outside of one’s control, make people more vulnerable to addiction. These factors include genetics and family history, the environment in which they grew up, trauma or co-occurring mental health issues, and many other social and behavioral factors. Ultimately, addiction doesn’t discriminate. It can impact people of all ages, races, genders, and social classes.
How can we overcome stigma?
Reducing stigma and helping people achieve their best health outcomes starts with each of us. By paying attention to our own attitudes and beliefs about addiction, we can consciously begin to replace any fears and judgments with respect and compassion.
To start, making simple changes in language can help reduce harmful negativity around substance use disorders. When talking to or about people with substance use disorders, consider using person-first language, which focuses on the person—not their illness. This includes removing words that define a person by their condition or may have negative connotations. For example, “a person with a substance use disorder” has a neutral tone and separates the person from his or her disorder. Someone who is working to overcome drug use can be described as a “person in recovery.”
Importantly, check in with friends or loved ones about how they refer to themselves and how they would like others to refer to them. This can be one step toward opening up a dialogue from which to learn about each other and offer compassion and support.
We can also educate ourselves on the facts about addiction. It’s important to seek science-based information from a trustworthy source. And we can share that information with others to help them overcome their own misperceptions about addiction.
Learn more about how drug use and addiction affect the brain at www.drugabuse.gov.