Stigma of Addiction Versus Other Diseases

For people who are struggling to come to terms with their drug addiction or an addiction of a loved one, it can be difficult to fully grasp what they are experiencing. In order for people to tackle addiction head-on, they need a way to understand this condition in a language that is easy to understand. For those in the recovery community, the prevailing concept that has guided many to the acknowledgment, acceptance and ultimately treatment of their substance abuse is the understanding that addiction is a disease.

Since the concept’s introduction to the larger scientific and recovery community by researcher E.M. Jellinek in 1951, there has been increased research which has led to greater knowledge and understanding of addiction. By understanding addiction as a disease much like cancer or diabetes, the treatment of addicts has become more humane and addicts have a much better chance of achieving and sustaining recovery. Despite these shifts in understanding, the stigma of addiction is very much alive and well–and those afflicted with addiction still face considerable obstacles in getting the help they need to recover.

What is Stigma and Why Does the Stigma of Addiction Persist?

The word stigma carries strong meaning. Even if a person can’t specifically define the term, they innately understand the term carries substantial negative connotations. A stigma can generally be seen as being an unpleasant mark or sign that is usually associated with disgraceful connotations. In a broader social context, stigma occurs when there is an extreme disapproval or disdain for a group of people based on a mores and standards that are considered different or marginal as defined by society.  This occurs through labeling and stereotyping of in individual or group and as a consequence results in a loss of status and ultimately discrimination.

When we look at drug and alcohol addiction, examples of stigma are easy to spot. Even though addiction is seen as a chronic and progressive disease that changes the circuitry of the brain, those who suffer from addiction are often labeled junkiesderelictsbums and dirty. When celebrities are “outed” in regards to substance abuse, they are exploited by the media and constantly hounded by the paparazzi. While the government may view addiction as a disease, policies like those instituted in the War on Drugs view those who suffer from addiction as criminals.

People who bear the stigma of substance abuse may also be suffering from a co-occurring mental illness which comes with a stigma of its own. Even though we better understand the complexities of both addiction and mental health issues, they are still spoken of in hushed tones, and addicts and their family members can carry an enormous amount of guilt and shame.


Reasons Why the Disease of Addiction Still Carries Stigma

Whether we consciously think about it or not, the stigma of drug addiction impacts our thinking to a certain degree. While addiction is widely recognized as a disease and thought of in the same way as other diseases such as cancer, people who are afflicted with substance abuse disorders are still not looked upon with the compassion as those afflicted with other diseases. The following are some common reasons why the stigma surrounding addiction still holds strong.

Many Addicts Fail to Seek Treatment

Perhaps the biggest factor that has contributed to the continuing stigma of drug addiction in the United States is the failure of many addicts to seek professional help. Of the estimated 23.5 million addicts 18 years and older in the United States, only one in ten will actually seek treatment. The main reason why people avoid going to treatment is because of fears they will be stuck with the addict label–even if they successfully complete treatment and maintain sobriety. Those who seek treatment feel tremendous guilt and shame and may feel that others may be ashamed of them and addiction will forever be a black mark in their life that will never be erased.

sad girl sitting alone

Addiction Treatment Funding is Disproportionately Low Compared to Other Diseases

In spite of the huge financial impact of addictive disorders on society, the way that addiction treatment is funded is disproportionately low compared to funding that is provided for the treatment of other diseases. Even though legislation such as the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act and provisions in the current Affordable Healthcare Act (ACA) generally prevents group health plans and health insurance issuers from imposing less favorable benefit limitations on mental health and addiction treatment benefits, any coverage that a person may have may be unauthorized or only may be partially covered. As a result, the treatment an addict may receive may not fully address all of their needs.

Stigmatization Can Occur In a Treatment Setting

When people enter a drug treatment facility, they are extremely vulnerable psychologically and often feel they have failed themselves and others. While the overall message that is conveyed in drug treatment is that recovery is possible and are empowered to be proactive is shaping their recovery, treatment staff that sends messages of blaming or shaming to clients can be negative reinforcing to those who genuinely desire to get clean and sober. When an addict enters treatment, they have spent many years (and even a lifetime) trying to silence their inner critic and battling feelings of inferiority and they aren’t good enough to deserve what is good in life. Treatment staff that sends blaming or other negative messages to their clients only reinforces the stigma that the addict will always remain “broken”.

People Who Are In Recovery Are Always Under the Microscope

When people are recovering from diseases such as cancer, the attitude of loved ones and others is nurturing and positive. While those who are recovering from substance abuse may experience similar feelings from their loved ones, there can also be a substantial level of suspicion. No matter how strong a person’s recovery plan or their will to stay clean, the label of being an addict and the shame associated with that label is always present. The presumption of once an addict, always an addict has an enormous impact on the everyday lives of those who are in recovery. These impacts are not only felt by the recovering addict, they are felt in the community, in the family, and in the social networks people move through.

Those Who Are In Recovery Will Experience Stigma-Based Roadblocks Constantly

Unlike people who recover from diseases such as cancer and heart disease, those who recover from substance abuse will face many obstacles in their sobriety. For those who are recovering from substance abuse, Employment, education, insurance and the ability to vote are all fraught with uncertainty and discrimination in these areas are ever present. Additionally, recovering people have a harder time finding and keeping employment, getting licenses, food stamps and benefits that will help their children. These aspects of life are critical for a stable recovery, and when paths to getting these benefits are blocked by stigma, those who have worked hard to get and stay sober run an increased risk of relapsing and falling back into the vicious cycle of substance abuse once again.

If you or a loved need to break free from an addiction to drugs and alcohol, call the addiction professionals at Dream Center for Recovery today. Our individualized treatment programs and compassionate care will give you the tools and support to succeed in your recovery.