Don’t Let Stigma Perpetuate Substance Addiction

girl sitting on the floor

Do you have a loved one who is suffering from substance addiction but refuses to seek help because they are ashamed of it? People in our society who struggle with substance use disorder face a lot of stigmatization around the issue. Society as a whole needs to become more recovery supportive, and each one of you has a role to play. First, you need to understand what is stigma and how it works before striving to dismantle it.

What Is Stigma and How Does It Work?

Stigmatization of substance addiction refers to prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory practices against people with substance use disorders. Policies and attitudes hold stigma at the society level, organizational level, and individual level, all of which may endorse negative social norms. Stigma is a form of emotional abuse through pervasive negative social norms that harm recovering individuals’ self-image and self-respect. It has the power to hold down a person’s perceived self-worth, which tends to perpetuate mental illness and increases the risk for addiction.

Public or structural stigma about substance addiction and its related mental health concerns has much to do with the lack of knowledge about people with addictive disorders, as well as media portrayals of addiction-related tragic events. Family and friends may also carry these social norms about substance addiction. The use of derogatory terms when referring to addicted people, for example, is one form of labeling which perpetuates stigma.

In a broader sense, stigma affects all of us. Nearly everyone has been labeled in some inferior way at some point in their lives. In nearly every case, stigmatization does more harm than good. It often decreases one’s willingness to enter into treatment. That is to say, people who experience strong stigma regarding their drug and alcohol use are less likely to seek treatment. There is also less research, less awareness, and fewer conversations around issues that face harsh stigmatization. Stigmatization may also worsen mental health issues related to addiction.

How to Destigmatize Substance Addiction

Meaningful changes should begin with language choice. How people talk about those with substance use disorder matters. Everyone plays a role in shaping the language around this issue. Some medical professionals advocate for the use of language that gives dignity and respect to those suffering from substance use disorders. For example, instead of using “substance abuser,” “addict,” or “junkie,” they suggest referring to an addicted person as “someone who has substance use disorder.” The former terms have a more punitive bias, whereas the latter has a more therapeutic meaning and recognizes that addiction is an illness of the brain.

Destigmatization should begin from within the medical community. Unfortunately, many medical professionals hold an extremely negative or stigmatized view of individuals who struggle with substance use disorder. Perceived stigma from health professionals can discourage people from seeking help.

There are ways you can play a role in reducing stigma, too. For example, you can correct someone who perpetuates misconceptions about substance addiction and its related mental illnesses. Discuss the human side of addiction and affirm that, like other diseases, addiction is treatable, and is not a result of a moral failing of an individual.

Use Something Positive to Anchor Yourself

If you are one of those many people who face stigmatization, an effective way to combat it is to have a secure self-identity that is anchored in a positive and unchanging fact. Do not let substance use or people’s views about it define who you are. Some people have this anchored self-identity in unconditional love by their parents, spouse, children, or higher power they believe in. Others might find their secure identity is rooted in something that is ever-evolving for good.

Another strategy to combat stigmatization is to band together with the right folks. Becoming a part of an inclusive and compassionate recovery community can help you re-anchor. For example, at a 12-step meeting, you will meet people who are in a similar walk of life as you and struggle with similar issues. This community gives you both a way to commiserate and a team to help you overcome stigma.

Dismantling self-internalized stigma is often the biggest challenge. To do this you must face the shame and guilt inside of yourself without trying to ignore or escape it. Recognize that it’s there and discuss it with supportive people. Doing so can externalize your emotions, allowing more light to come through to your inner world.

Like all negative emotions, shame and fear can shrink once they are brought to the open through honest conversation. Once they have no dark corners to hide, their power over your life will begin to disappear. Above all else, practice kindness and compassion to yourself, which encourages others to do so as well. 

Are you or a loved one suffering from substance addiction but refusing to seek help because you are ashamed of it? Are you aware of the widespread stigma in a society facing people with substance use disorder? Do you know what you can do to alleviate the harm of such stigma? It may be time to consult a health professional. At Laguna Shores Recovery, our licensed mental healthcare professionals and therapists will coach you in how to prevent the harmful effects of stigma on recovery. Our inpatient and outpatient programs offer a range of services that address different psychological issues related to addiction recovery. If you or your loved one need long-term help, our residential facility also offers a range of treatments, including diagnosis, behavioral therapies, 12-Step programs, and custom treatment plans. You can count on us to guide you through de-stigmatization. Call us at (866) 906-3203 for more information.