Do you have a loved one who is suffering from substance addiction but hesitates to seek treatment because of stigma? Unfortunately, negative attitudes and beliefs toward people who struggle with addiction are common. Such is also the case for people struggling with mental health conditions. Stigmatization is harmful in many ways, not least of which is that it creates a barrier to treatment. With education and compassion, this stigma and the barriers that come with it can be overcome.
How Does Stigma Work?
Stigma is when someone’s personality traits or things they struggle with are viewed as a disadvantage or negative stereotype. Stigmatized attributes disqualify people from full social acceptance. These traits may include race, weight, disability, or a health condition. Stigma may lead to direct or indirect discrimination. People who suffer from stigmatization may internalize the stigma and even judge themselves in a negative light.
Stigma is strong against people with substance addiction and co-occurring mental health conditions, often appearing as a lack of understanding and compassion from family and friends. Hostile discrimination may even manifest in bullying, harassment, and physical violence. Pregnant women for example especially suffer from such stigma because people tend to associate their addictive habits with a lack of morality.
Why Is Stigma a Barrier to Treatment?
The danger of internalized stigma is that it prohibits people from seeking proper addiction recovery treatment. They may be reluctant to admit their problem of addiction for fear of being viewed with judgment. Stigma can also isolate these individuals from a natural support system. They might only want to hang out with people who also use substances to avoid stigmatized attitudes.
The self-doubt and shame created by stigma can damage one’s self-esteem and outlook on life. They may give in to the belief that they will never recover. Destructive self-judgment and negative self-talk can create stress that worsens substance addiction and related mental health issues such as depression.
Sometimes, even health professionals display negative attitudes toward people with substance use disorders. These attitudes are especially harmful because they alienate those seeking help, leading to noncooperation, non-completion, or even drop-out. Even the language used by health professionals can reflect stigma. For example, calling someone “a substance abuser” evokes more negative attitudes than using “an individual with a substance use disorder.”
What About the Stigma of Mental Health?
People who struggle with addiction often have co-occurring mental health conditions, including anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or depression. Mental health challenges are also highly stigmatized in today’s society. This means that people with both conditions may suffer double levels of stigmatization.
Stigma not only harms the well-being of those who experience it, but it also affects them while in treatment. Because stigma can show up in both micro-and macro-aggressive ways, it worsens health disparities. Stigma and its resulting treatment barriers are then a social injustice, not solely a health problem. A social justice-informed approach to eliminating stigma is needed among health professionals and the general public.
How Do You Best Address Stigma?
It takes widespread education to help the public understand that substance addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders do not equal character defects of individuals. For example, many people develop substance addictions after using drugs and alcohol to self-medicate and deal with childhood trauma. Some mental health disorders make people more vulnerable to substance use. Some disorders can be genetic or circumstantial.
More open discussions in society about the science behind substance addiction and co-occurring mental health problems can raise awareness and normalize these diseases. People need to be reminded that, as diseases of the brain, these conditions are equal to physical illnesses. As such, they are nothing to judge or ridicule, because doing so can prevent people from getting help.
How Do You Deal With Self-Stigma and Shame?
Recovering individuals can fight stigma by not allowing stigma to affect their self-evaluation. They can be open about the guilt and shame, but should never allow that to define who they are. They are productive members of society who can commit to a positive outlook on life and motivate themselves toward the goal of recovery despite internal or external stigma.
Family and friends of recovering individuals should do better at eliminating stigmatized language and attitudes. The person needing treatment needs support and compassion, not judgment. Consider the issue the same way one would if a loved one was suffering from a physical illness like heart disease—this likely would not induce shame or judgment. Stop the negative messaging that does not help loved ones but may deter their recovery.
With unconditional love and support, people struggling with addiction can have the courage to fight institutional and public stigma. Everyone can play an active role in advocating for more helpful policies related to supporting addiction recovery.
Have you or your loved one suffered from negative attitudes about addiction? Did you know that stigma and prejudice may create barriers to treatment? Society at large needs to work to inform people from all walks of life about how substance addiction happens to combat stigmatization. If you are looking for a supportive recovery community that knows how to deal with the trauma of stigma, we are here for you. At Laguna Shores Recovery, we have experienced mental health professionals who can coach you through recovering from addiction. We embrace a holistic approach and involve your family to support you. Most of our staff have been through recovery themselves, so they understand the struggle and the harm of stigma. Schedule an appointment with us today to discover how we can help you. Call (866) 229-9923 and we will be happy to talk with you about your recovery plans.