Why The Stigma of Drug and Alcohol Addiction Holds Everyone Back

Stigma is the look on their face when they find out you’ve done drugs. It’s the judgment that crossed their minds. It’s the assumption that you must have a lesser mental capacity than most. It’s having to lie about your past for fear of being viewed as a criminal. It’s not always obvious, except to the addict and likely to those who have loved an addict. Common misconceptions include thinking that willpower can cure addiction, or that more severe punishments will motivate addicts to stop using. Many even think that terming addiction a ‘disease’ is just an excuse. When it comes to addiction recovery, this stigma can be the biggest hurdle of all.

Stigma increases the difficulty individuals and families face when seeking the help they desperately need. This results in many people preferring to delay or avoid treatment rather than face the stigma from co-workers, managers, friends, and even family. This tends to only deepens the isolation and the addictions. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has estimated that 22.7 million Americans need drug and alcohol addiction treatment, but only 2.5 million people receive it. That’s less than a one in ten.

(Image source: Prescription Drug Abuse Coalition Los Angeles County)

I was reminded of these stigmas recently when talking to a close friend. I had seen this man almost every single day for six years straight. I knew his company had set aside a budget for charity involvement and was looking for ways to give back to the local community. I presented to him the option of sponsoring and participating in a local initiative to help those in recovery. The opportunity would reach thousands and his company’s name would be at the forefront of it all. The cost was very low for the coverage it would provide and it would take almost no effort on his part. This friend had accepted all of my previous charity proposals. This time however, my friend had a different reaction entirely. After carefully listening to my enthusiastic pitch, he said “Why should we help those people if they can’t even help themselves?”

I was stunned by his response. After all, I thought I knew the man pretty well, but here he was voicing a blatant, stinging generalization. I knew that his wife had struggled with a prescription addiction and that she had received help through a rehab center in Utah. I also knew that he had stood beside her during her addiction. Unfortunately, they eventually divorced. This was a man who had participated with his wife in addiction treatment and therapy, lead by licensed addiction specialists. Certainly he had heard of all the studies linking drug and alcohol addiction to genetics. Certainly he had experienced stigma from others when they talked about his wife. With a background like that, I thought he would be supportive towards assisting in the fight against drug and alcohol addiction. Clearly, I was wrong. Did his experiences with addiction increase the stigma he felt? Could it have hindered his wife’s recovery? At that moment, I realized that the stigma behind drug and alcohol addiction goes much deeper than I could comprehend.

How far down does the dark rabbit hole of stigma go? I couldn’t think of a darker hole to peer down than that of the internet’s comment sections. Just a quick look down reveals it’s twisted spiral. I debated putting examples into this article because they are so callous, but I believe it’s important to understand what drug addicts have to face. So in all their wonder, here are just three:

Surprisingly all three of the above comments were taken from the comment section of one article. I’m not going to source it, because it doesn’t deserve the added link juice from Google’s search algorithm. But if you think, “These can’t be real, people are just trolling the comment sections,” then just remember last September when the Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, launched his deadly war against drugs by stating, “If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself. ” And it’s that sort of talk that won him enough votes to be elected as the leader of a nation.

How do we combat such intense and hate-filled stigmas? For one, you can bring it up. Talk about the stigma and taboos against addiction. Share your own experiences and understanding. Speak out against stigmatizing language, images, posts, or jokes. Share articles about overcoming the stigma, such as this one. The more the topic is brought up and discussed with open dialogue, the more people will begin to understand and shed the arrogance of judgmental thought. Education, understanding, compassion, and professional treatment are the tools that will ultimately lead to recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.