Many people who suffer from an illness turn to their communities for help. Communities can offer support, embrace those in need, and offer possible solutions. Unfortunately, people with addictions rarely find this kind of response when they turn to the community. Instead, substance use disorders are more highly stigmatized and many people view them more negatively than other mental illnesses. This stigma is a form of prejudice which leads to discrimination against those with substance use disorders. When addicts turn to the community to try and build bonds with others to decrease the likelihood of using, what they find, instead, is the community actively turning away from them.
Addiction Stigma in the Community
The problem with addiction stigma is that it leads to both anticipated and actual discrimination against the person with the substance use disorder. The addict may become less likely to seek help.
Even people in treatment face stigma from the community. For example, people often look down on those receiving Suboxone in spite of the fact that these people are treating the disease of addiction in a responsible and medically approved way.
Addiction stigma can also be seen in community institutions, public policy, and even from healthcare professionals. Treatment providers can hold negative, stigmatized beliefs including that addicts overuse the system, addicts are not invested in their own health, and addicts abuse providers through drug-seeking and failing to follow recommended care.
Some in our society feel that this shaming of addicts will deter people from abusing substances and increase their motivation to seek help. However, no empirical evidence exists to support this theory and, in fact, it appears that the opposite often happens.
According to a study by Barry et al, substance use disorder stigma in the community results in people being:
- Unwilling to allow a person with an addiction to marry into their family or work closely with them on a job
- More willing to accept discriminatory practices against those with substance use disorders
- More skeptical about the effectiveness of available treatments (when compared to treatments for other mental illnesses)
- More likely to oppose public policies aimed at helping people with addictions
Not only do people in the community actively discriminate against those with addictions, but they also oppose policies that could help those with substance use disorders get into treatment and achieve recovery. In this climate, it’s no wonder that many addicts choose to hide their addictions and feel that entering treatment, and exposing their addiction, would hurt them in some way.
What can the Community Do to Help ?
The research indicates that we’ve been mistaken about addiction. We’ve been looking at the drug and the individual as the problems, but science shows us that it’s someone’s life events, genetic factors, trauma, and surroundings or isolation that lead to addiction. It’s neither the drug nor the person. Addiction stigma in the community adds to the problem of addiction rather than solving it.
A community is better off embracing addicts instead of shaming and stigmatizing. The community can support the addict the same way it would a person with any other type of illness. The addict needs connection in order to heal, and it is by improving the surroundings of addicts and eliminating their pain from trauma or other life events that we can truly fight addiction. The community can help by spreading the message that addiction is a disease, that treatment works, and that recovery is real and achievable.