“Why the bigotry, why the stigma, why the shame when we almost all have a version of this disease? We’re all using something to deal with the pain and suffering of being human…Why are we a nation that waits for a person to break before anyone even seems to give a shit? Today, I realize my greatest gift in life was discovering my mental illness so I could recover and help others along the way,” – Joey Pantoliano
How do we change the way we look at addiction? It seems as our country’s drug problem expands that we need to shift focus away from stigmatization and toward encouraging a life of recovery, so that recovery becomes more accessible. We need to greet substance abuse with more compassion, eliminating the idea of treatment as punishment. Our views are based on the old concept of the War on Drugs of the 70s and 80s which viewed drug use as a crime leading to punishment as the only acceptable response. This has left us with an awful view of addiction stigma.
Stigma against addicts exists because it is commonly believed that they are making bad choices, and that they have control over their actions. Recently there has been a shift; in a growing number of states and cities if a one is caught by a police officer they are given the opportunity to go straight to treatment instead of getting arrested. This is an ideal approach. Legal problems can make a person’s problem so much worse and increase the stigma. We feel like this has started the cultural shift from punishment to help. Social influence is very effective in reducing drug related problems.
How do we alter this lack of understanding? One way to reduce stigma is to changing the verbiage surrounding addiction. Many terms used to address addicts are negative even calling people “addicts” may be harmful. Coming out as addicted is the number one thing that’s going to change people’s perceptions of this population—much like the Gay Rights Movement did for gays and lesbians. Owning the stigma maybe the best way to erase it or maybe not. The next few years will be a true test of how we are seen in the public eye.