When we think of someone with a substance use disorder, what comes to mind? Do we see them as individuals who are battling an illness, or do we view them as people who are weak and simply cannot control themselves? Unfortunately, the way addiction has been portrayed and talked about in American society has been shaped by harmful stereotypes and stigma.
Substance use disorder is by no means the only medical condition that has significant stigma attached to it. Sexually transmitted infections, mental illnesses and even some types of cancer have historically carried significant stigma. But widespread education and new, highly effective medications have helped to lessen it. Sadly, this evolution of thought has. not yet done much to de-stigmatize addiction and those afflicted are often blamed for their conditions (NIDA)
Substance use disorder is complex and it affects people from all walks of life. It does not discriminate based on age, race, gender, or socioeconomic status. And yet, there is still so much stigma surrounding addiction. Why is that? In this blog post, we’ll explore the origins of this stigma and how it continues to impact those affected by substance use disorder. We’ll also discuss what we can do to challenge these harmful beliefs and support those in need.
The shame and stigma associated with substance use disorders
Living with a substance use disorder can be incredibly difficult, not only because of the direct negative impacts on one’s mental, physical and financial health, but also the shame and stigma associated with it. This shame is often rooted in feelings of weakness or failure due to messages perpetuated by society that misusing substances is a choice or moral failing. But in reality, substance use disorders are complex, underlying medical conditions with biological, social, and psychological components that should not be seen simply as an individual’s lack of willpower. Everyone deserves access to judgment-free care and resources regardless of their diagnosis and should never have to fear being judged or misunderstood. The shame and stigma associated with substance use disorder must be dismantled so everyone can receive the support they need without shame or fear.
How this stigma can prevent people from seeking help
The fear associated with seeking help due to the stigma of mental illness and substance use disorders can be incredibly daunting. You might feel scared and worried you will be judged, or even seen as weak by those around you if you seek out help. It can be quite a challenging situation to deal with, especially when this stigma is reinforced by friends, family members and the communities you are involved in. Many don’t acknowledge that substance us issues can affect anyone and therefore perpetuate this kind of negative thinking which stops people from reaching out and getting the help they need. Saying something or simply being there to listen without judgement is a great first step in helping someone struggling with substance use to focus on their wellbeing and recovery – instead of feeling scared about addressing it.
This is one of the many reasons that Peer Recovery Specialists are such an important resource in many recovery journeys. Because they have lived through, and are in recovery from, substance use disorder, they are able to work with clients from a judgment-free place. They have also likely confronted stigma themselves, so are aware that this is a barrier for many to receiving treatment. Engaging with a Peer Recovery Specialist early in one’s journey can be critical to gaining the confidence needed to access other support services and treatments.
The negative impact of the stigma on those who suffer from substance use disorders
The stigma surrounding those with substance use disorders often leads to feelings of guilt, fear and isolation, which can ultimately lead to a return to use. People who struggle with substance dependency are not only judged by their peers but also subject to public shaming on television and in the media. This can make it extremely difficult for them to return to a healthier lifestyle. This stigma can create distance within social groups and rob people of much-needed support, leaving those suffering feeling isolated without an outlet to express themselves or turn for help. To reduce this damaging stigma, we must recognize the complexity of addiction and stop judging people for the decisions that led them down this path. We must support individuals affected rather than condemn them because when we reach out with kindness and understanding, we can make a positive difference in their lives.
Ways to combat the stigma, including education and open dialogue
When it comes to combating the stigma of any issue, education is essential as a starting point. By educating ourselves and others about issues that have long been stigmatized, we can begin to open the channels for honest discussion and promote transparency. Together we can create a supportive environment where knowledge and understanding bring hope for a more unified future. Through education, open dialogue, and a shared sense of hope we can set out on a path towards removing the damaging effects of stigma surrounding substance use disorder where more people feel comfortable getting help sooner.
The shame and stigma associated with substance use disorders is a major barrier to treatment and recovery. This stigma can prevent people from seeking help or re-engaging with support services when a return to use occurs. There are ways to combat the stigma, including education and open dialogue. If we want to reduce the incidence of substance use disorders, we need to start by reducing the stigma. Peer Recovery Specialists are a leading resource in doing this. Learn more about becoming a Certified Peer Recovery Specialist today to help dismantle stigma and promote an open dialogue about substance use disorders. Together we can create a supportive environment where everyone has access to judgment-free care and resources.
- NIDA. (2022, January 16). Addressing the stigma that surrounds addiction. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved December 13, 2022, from https://nida.nih.gov/about-nida/noras-blog/2020/04/addressing-stigma-surrounds-addiction