The term “addict” carries so much baggage. People often think that addicts are lazy, irresponsible, lack willpower, and have many other character defects. Even healthcare providers—the very people charged with helping patients with illnesses like addiction—can have these impressions. The thought is that addicts are choosing to do this to themselves, when in reality the addict has lost the ability to choose.
This is the stigma. It influences people to judge and to look down on addicts. But addiction stigma isn’t fair or accurate. Addicts are people like everyone else, they just happen to have an illness.
WHAT EFFECT DOES STIGMA HAVE ON ADDICTS?
One of the most troubling effects of substance abuse stigma is the fact that it actually stops addicts from getting treatment. People are so concerned about how society will view them that they don’t want to admit to addiction–thus preventing them from getting help. This situation is isolating, dangerous, and even life-threatening.
Someone trying to hide his or her addiction often ends up pushing friends and family away. This has the potential to affect every part of life such as employment, housing, and social relationships.
Self-stigma is the blame the addict places on him or herself. If addicts internalize all the negative messages they hear, this may actually make them sink further into their disease. Much of recovery focuses on building self-esteem so that the addict no longer has to turn to substances to feel okay about him or herself.
FIGHTING ADDICTION STIGMA?
One effective way to fight shame and self-stigma is a form of skills training known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Employment skills training has also been shown to reduce the perception of stigma by the addict.
Another powerful way of fighting stigma—not just for the addict but also for society as large—is talking about addiction. Today’s news is full of addicts and their families—including celebrities and noted politicians—speaking up about their experiences. Public gatherings such as Unite to Face Addiction in Washington DC are aimed at starting a positive national discussion.
It’s powerful to hear recovering addicts and family members tell their stories of experience, strength, and hope. This means that if you’re in recovery you can fight the stigma that may be preventing others from getting help simply by talking about your experience (which you can do anonymously in a 12-step meeting).
Those in addiction recovery may want to hide their illness, but it’s when these resilient people speak out that societal attitudes start to change. Recovering addicts are the ones most qualified to deliver the message that treatment works, that recovery is possible, and that they’re grateful for second chances.