Ever struggled with a tough diagnosis besides addiction? Perhaps it was an autoimmune disorder, like diabetes, or a mental illness, like bipolar disorder. Maybe it was a sexually transmitted disease that you were embarrassed to talk about–or it may have been a diagnosis of SUD (substance use disorder).
Why are these types of illnesses so hard to discuss, especially with others who have never experienced them? If you’re thinking of a six-letter word that rhymes with enigma, you’re right on the mark. The stigmatization of certain illnesses can be a huge obstacle to recovery and healing for many people, especially in the case of an alcohol or drug addiction.
So, what exactly is stigma?
Stigma is a complicated network of behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes that permeates all levels of society, from families to schools to media to government, and causes discrimination toward and poor treatment of people with certain physical or mental illnesses and disorders.
Anyone can suffer from stigmatization.
Take, for example, Zoe, a young woman who passed away from an overdose. In Psychology Today, Zoe’s mother shares how stigma was a prime culprit in her daughter’s death. When Zoe sought help for her addiction, medical professionals and family members often put the blame on Zoe’s “spoiled personality” and her mother’s negligent parenting. The message was that Zoe brought her addiction upon herself.
This kind of story is all too common. The stigma surrounding addiction places blame on the addicted person for their situation, thus alienating them from support when they need it most. Stigma also puts unnecessary pressure on a family to solve their own problems and hide them from others.
Nora Volkow writes an illuminating article to explain two primary obstacles that addiction stigma creates:
- The general public and the healthcare system view addiction as a result of moral weakness and a poor character.
This results in addicted people being met with discouragement and negativity when they arrive for help at hospitals or healthcare facilities. In the worst-case scenarios, addicted individuals receive substandard care or cruel treatment from biased medical professionals when attempting to get help. They feel humiliated or offended and feel alienated from medical care.
- The general public fears that addicted individuals will always become violent or unmanageable, so they distance themselves from the person. They don’t hire them, they don’t date them, and they aren’t friends with them.
This view has much to do with the first, in that people struggling with addiction are viewed as violent, morally corrupt people. The isolation this forces on the person suffering from addiction only worsens their substance abuse habits and makes them feel unwanted and alone.
Both of these obstacles make sharing an addiction with medical professionals, family, and friends unthinkable for many people, and that’s the real shame.
So, how do we tackle the stigma and get to the treatment?
The first step in overcoming stigma is education. Know the science behind addiction, visit an AA or Al-Anon meeting and listen to the stories people share, and talk openly about addiction with your family and friends. Understand that addiction is a disease and that no one wants to suffer from it.
If you are in recovery, you can help decrease the stigma by sharing your story. Books and memoirs about addiction can also help personalize the disease and invite compassion and understanding.
Another source of excellent information about addiction is an addiction treatment facility like Great Oaks Recovery Center. Admissions counselors can help you understand your situation and find the help you need.