The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as a “chronic, relapsing brain disease” that alters brain chemistry. Drugs change the structure of the brain, resulting in a compulsion to continue using despite social, financial, and health consequences.
But if drug addiction is a disease, why aren’t addicts treated with more compassion? Why are they shamed, ridiculed, and viewed with disgust?
Addiction is stigmatized in the United States, and this is hurting rather than helping the drug crisis.
How is Addiction Stigmatized?
Addiction has long been stigmatized in the United States. Addicts are scorned, their families blamed, and the addiction spoken of only in hushed whispers.
Celebrity addictions are plastered on the front pages of tabloids and gossip magazines, and they’re often the subject of ridicule. Viral photos and videos of overdosing addicts generate thousands of angry, hateful comments.
The government claims to view addiction as a disease, but drug users are criminalized. They’re often thrown into prison instead of rehab.
Overall, American society treats addicts as second-class citizens, as less-than. Those struggling with addiction must also struggle with this perception and the guilt, shame, and humiliation that result.
Even for those in recovery, the stigma of being an “addict” persists, especially if they have been in treatment or in prison. People in recovery have a harder time securing jobs, pursuing an education, obtaining a driver’s license or government benefits, and more.
Mental health issues, too, tend to be stigmatized in the United States. Mental health disorders often co-occur with substance abuse disorders, causing even more shame and embarrassment for addicts.
Why is Addiction Stigma Dangerous?
Addiction stigma likely plays a major role in the drug and alcohol mortality rate. It impacts the willingness of addicts to seek treatment, the self-esteem and mental health of those with substance abuse disorders, and the ability of recovering addicts to maintain sobriety. It also limits the harm reduction strategies and treatments available for addicts.
Because addiction is viewed with scorn and disgust, addicts try to hide their illness instead of seeking help. If this stigma were removed, addicts would be more likely to discuss their struggles openly and honestly with a health care provider, getting the help they need before it’s too late.
Due to addiction stigma, it’s also common for mental health care providers to refuse to treat addicts until they are sober. However, mental illness is very common among those with substance abuse disorders, who need both issues treated simultaneously for recovery to be effective.
In addition, addicts are often arrested for their drug use. More money is spent on criminalization than on treatment and rehabilitation.
Once they’re released from jail, parts of life that are essential to stability and recovery (housing, education, insurance, a driver’s license, benefits) are stripped away from recovering addicts, making it harder to maintain sobriety.
Even after addiction recovery, recovering addicts are viewed with suspicion by not only society, but also by their friends and family. As a result, they may feel lonely, insecure, and ashamed, which can trigger a relapse.
Due to this stigma, a variety of evidence-based harm reduction strategies are also stigmatized by society. These treatments include substitution therapies, needle exchanges, and safe drug consumption rooms designed to reduce associated risks. Although evidence demonstrates that these strategies reduce drug use, society views them as encouraging addiction.
How Can We Stop Addiction Stigma?
Reducing addiction stigma would be a powerful step toward fighting the drug crisis. But changing such deeply ingrained perspectives is an uphill battle.
First, education on addiction as a disease is essential. People must understand that addiction is not simply a character weakness.
At the individual level, people can start by:
- Listening and offering compassionate support instead of judgment
- Seeing addicts for who they are as people, not for the drugs they use
- Doing research on how drug dependency works
- Avoiding hurtful labels and stereotypes
- Speaking up when someone is misinformed about addiction
- Replacing negative misconceptions with evidence-based facts
- Sharing your own journey with addiction and recovery (if applicable)
Addiction stigma discourages addicts from seeking treatment, and it makes it harder for them to maintain sobriety. It also results in a focus on criminalization rather than rehabilitation, and it limits the treatments and harm reduction strategies available.
As a society, we need to remember that drug addicts are just people. Addiction is an illness that can happen to anyone, and those who suffer from substance abuse disorders need compassion and support in order to heal.
To conquer the opioid and drug epidemic, we must first fight addiction stigma.