The Role of Stigma in Addiction and Relapse

Stigma represents a serious challenge to those seeking addiction treatment.

Imagine you’re in dire need of serious medical treatment— you’re in an incredible amount of pain, you have infected wounds, you can barely walk— and you know that your medical care provider isn’t going to give you the care, treatment, and priority that you need. This is a frustrating reality that almost every person who is addicted to a drug knows that they must face if they decide to seek out medical treatment for any of their conditions. Due to the profound stigma surrounding patients that deal with drug addictions within the U.S. healthcare system, the fact is that they receive much worse care than patients without substance use disorders. Research has come to show that people who have been assigned the label of a “drug addict” are viewed as more blameworthy and dangerous compared to individuals labeled with mental illness. As a result of this palpable stigma, many people struggling with addiction altogether avoid hospitals and medical offices, knowing that they will be marked as a separate class of patient and that they will suffer more.

When Stigma Impacts Access to Care

People affected by stigmas are often perceived as less than because they display socially undesirable tendencies and traits. The stigma against drug addiction is a steadily rising public health issue which results in prejudice, rejection, and discrimination of people who are simply suffering from a chronic disease of the brain. Not a single shred of evidence suggests that isolating, shaming, or mistreating someone dealing with substance addiction will cause them to stop using— in fact, the opposite holds true. Those dealing with substance use disorders are often pushed to the outskirts of society, and as a result deal with profound feelings of loneliness and isolation. Because the long-term ramifications of intentionally or unintentionally isolating drug users impact self-esteem, mental health, and an individual’s willingness to seek out treatment, it can fuel even more drug use, and ultimately create a vicious cycle of further substance abuse.

Drug abuse stigma is one of the main reasons that those with addictions can’t or don’t seek to access the treatment that they so desperately need. Statistics according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health show that roughly 21.5 million people in the United States over the age of 12 were victims of substance use disorder yearly, yet of those only 2.5 million sought out medical assistance and treatment for their issues. Traditionally, addiction has been treated as a clandestine issue only meant to be openly discussed within family or a moral and criminal matter, views that imply that addiction is an issue of willpower and not of brain chemistry. This combination of shaming stigmatizing substance abuse has led to significant mental and societal obstacles for generations and has done little to properly address the issues of drug addiction and alcoholism in the United States.

Overcome Stigma and Get Help Today

In order to change societal stigma and provide a more accurate perception of the very human struggle that drug abusers deal with, we must change the language we use to discuss addiction and commit ourselves to more accurate portrayals of it in the media and entertainment. We need to continually remind ourselves that we must do a better job of decreasing stigma because anybody can become dependent on drugs— it could be your mother, sibling, cousin, or yourself, and we need to remind ourselves that drug abusers are people who need help and treatment, not scorn and shame. Once we change the conversation and provide better access to evidence-based treatment, we can choose to cut off and kill these harmful stigmas. Help de-stigmatize substance abuse today by contacting Recovery Unplugged if you or someone you love is struggling with addiction.