Addiction stigma leads to negative—and sometimes unfair—perceptions about addicts, as well as people feeling shameful about their addiction. While it’s clear that stigma can affect every aspect of an addict’s life, it can also drastically affect other people as well. Family and friends are the unintended victims of addiction stigma.
What are the Effects on Loved Ones?
One way addiction stigma affects families is by causing them to not talk about it. One study showed that the more severe the alcoholism of a family member, the more family members avoided the topic. This may seem counter-intuitive, but when the stigma around addiction is considered it makes sense that people would not want to admit to it—in either themselves or their inner circle. This can easily lead to social isolation for members of the family as they work to keep the addiction hidden. For example, children may not be allowed to have play dates in the home due to concern over the secret getting out. Stigma felt by family members has also been shown to predict depressive symptoms in the children of alcoholics.
Stigma causes people to try to detox on their own rather than in a healthcare setting. According to a 2012 pilot study by Van Hout and Bingham, addiction stigma and costly treatment were what drove attempts at home detoxification and, unfortunately, in this inappropriate environment, relapse was common.
Addiction stigma can also destroy relationships. Sometimes friends or family members will choose to reject an addict based on the mere presence of an addiction, while at other times the inappropriate behavior associated with an addiction can alienate people. Friends and family who do not turn away from the addict may feel like social outcasts themselves simply by “guilt through association.”
And addiction stigma can have serious consequences including prisons, institutions, and even death. In 2013 there were 75,476 drug or alcohol induced deaths—over 200 per day. The more we fight the stigma the more these people don’t have to feel alone, and then the healing can start.
Battling Addiction Stigma
The good news is that family and friends can help fight addiction stigma and even lessen its effect in their own lives.
The first step is to acknowledge the problem, and to realize that addiction is a health issue—an illness—and not a character flaw on the part of the addict. Learning more about addiction and seeing positive recovery stories can help influence how stigma is perceived, and can loosen its grip. Connecting with friends and family of other addicts, such as through programs like Al-Anon or Alateen, can also help to reduce the impact of stigma.
But more than that: loved ones can stand by an addict in support and without shame. They can speak up about positive recovery stories both for the addict and for others in society, making it clear that recovery does happen and that societal shaming and stigma are unfair and useless.
It is understanding and education, along with qualified medical care, that helps addicts become clean and sober.