Stigma is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a mark of shame or discredit.” In our society, addiction certainly carries a stigma.
Like mental illness, addiction is something that isn’t frankly or openly discussed. Those struggling with addiction—and their families—prefer to keep quiet and avoid embarrassment. Once someone has gone to rehab for treatment or to jail for drug-related offenses, it becomes more difficult to find a job, pursue an education, secure a loan or government benefits, and more.
Addicts and even recovering addicts are treated as second-class citizens. And although substance abuse disorder is a disease, it’s also considered shameful. Addicts are often criticized and ridiculed, sometimes on public forums like social media.
But what is the impact of stigmatizing addiction? Does it prevent people from entering rehab? Let’s take a look.
The Impact of Addiction Stigma
It’s difficult to study exactly how stigma impacts the willingness of addicts to seek treatment. After all, those who are ashamed to seek treatment are also ashamed to admit that they’re addicts in the first place.
But it’s likely that the stigma of addiction plays a major role in the current drug mortality rates in the United States. And these rates have nearly doubled in just the last decade. In 2016, over 64,000 Americans died from drug overdose. The numbers from 2017 look to be even higher.
What we do know is that only about 11% of addicts make it into treatment. According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 22.7 million Americans aged 12 or older needed treatment for a substance abuse problem, but only about 2.5 million actually received treatment.
The same survey in 2012 revealed similar numbers. 94% of those surveyed stated that they didn’t think they need treatment. While there could be many reasons for this, one potential factor is stigma from within. When substance abusers feel ashamed of their behavior or believe social stereotypes about addicts, they prefer not to admit they have a problem—even to themselves.
Of those who didn’t receive treatment but felt they needed it, many couldn’t afford it or said they didn’t have the time. But 8% said they were worried about negative opinions, while an additional 10% worried it would negatively impact their careers.
These numbers indicate that hundreds of thousands of people who need treatment aren’t getting it due to internal stigma or a fear of being stigmatized. And as mentioned above, these numbers are likely higher in reality.
Shame cuts addicts off from social support, and it makes them hide their substance abuse instead of asking for the help they need. Many individuals avoid rehab because they’re worried about how others will view them, or they’re concerned that this stigma will destroy their careers. Simply put, stigmatizing addiction costs lives.
What Can We Do About It?
It’s clear that individuals who struggle with substance abuse need treatment. Addiction isn’t something that goes away on its own, and it isn’t something that an addict can conquer without help.
So how can we confront the stigma of addiction and encourage addicts to enter rehab?
There isn’t an easy answer. Education about substance abuse disorder is key, along with the dissemination of information to the public. On a large scale, stigma prevention campaigns, public service announcements, and the use of social media could be impactful.
As a society, we must demystify and humanize addiction, treatment, and recovery.
On the individual level, you can do the following:
- Learn more.
- Treat people with dignity and respect.
- Think about the whole person, not just the addiction.
- Speak out.
- Don’t generalize. Use science and research instead of stereotypes.
In the long-term, it’s vital to change the conversation about addicts and addiction. Empathy and education are lacking when it comes to addiction, and the cost can be measured in lost lives.
But in the short-term, if you’re an addict who needs help, you can’t let inaccurate and unfair social stigma and feelings of shame hold you back. Nothing is more important than your health and your life.
Don’t risk your life and the grief of your loved ones over worries about public perception. You’re more than your addiction, and your life is more meaningful than society’s judgments.
If you’re struggling with substance abuse disorder, don’t let addiction stigma stop you from entering rehab and getting the treatment you need. Call one of our addiction specialist today at 1-888-249-2590 or receive more information about The Shores Program here.