While society’s perception of addiction has come a long way, there are still plenty of misconceptions surrounding it. At the heart of these hurtful–and often harmful–falsehoods is the stigma attached to addiction. This stigma can cause struggling individuals to hesitate about turning to their loved ones for help, connecting with others who share their hardships, or even getting treatment. We look into why that stigma still persists, how the topic of addiction is being discussed on a national scale, and how to overcome it as a person who’s experienced substance use disorder. 

The definition of stigma

The term comes from ancient Greek where it was originally used to refer to a physical mark left by a pointed instrument that was specifically used to denote a lower social status. In the modern vernacular, stigma is “a mark of shame or discredit”. 

It can be anything that goes against what the majority of society deems appropriate, such as a person’s marital status (e.g. being single or divorced), their sexuality, whether or not they have children, or physical features like skin color, body type, hair, or the presence of tattoos or piercings. Things that challenge a society’s values, beliefs, or ideology. 

Understandably, stigmas of any kind can be extremely harmful to a person’s mental health and general well-being. They can make us feel devalued and prevent us from feeling worthy of being treated fairly or, in the case of addiction, asking for help. Other unpleasant concepts that stem from stigmas include stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination.

How to reduce the stigma of addiction

Despite science having proven that addiction is a matter of chemical reactions rather than willpower, there is still much work to be done to eliminate addiction stigma. The good news is that it’s definitely possible. 

Consider other things that were previously stigmatized in America, like interracial relationships or mental illness. Society changed its views and eventually, legislation followed suit (it can also work in the reverse order). While a stigma may never be fully erased from certain pockets of people, as a whole, it’s safe to say that such things are no longer taboo subjects.

This exemplifies the critical characteristic of a stigma: they’re simply social constructs. They’ll change as society changes. This change is already underway for substance abuse. Consider how addiction is now recognized as a legitimate health issue that’s protected by law or how the peer-based recovery group, Alcoholics Anonymous, is widely known by the mainstream public. 

Here are a few things you, as an individual, can do to slowly but surely reduce the stigma of addiction in your community:

  1. Use person-first language

Words have power and the way you speak on the subject of addiction can make a difference. When speaking on a taboo subject, it can be easy to focus on the thing that others them. It’s dehumanizing and reduces a person to a certain train or quality. 

When talking to or about someone with substance use disorder, don’t use terms like ‘addict’ or ‘substance abuser’. Instead, use person-first language that focuses on them as a human being, rather than their condition, such as ‘a person with a substance abuse disorder’. 

  1. Recognize that willpower can only accomplish so much

It wasn’t until fairly recently that addiction was recognized as being a medical condition (proven by science) rather than a lack of willpower or a moral failing. That means when a person is struggling with addiction, it’s not for a lack of wanting to get better. 

You wouldn’t suggest a person with any other chronic condition like diabetes or cancer is still sick because they don’t want to recover badly enough, right? It’s the same for substance abuse. Addiction is a medical condition that needs specific treatments and sometimes medications to treat. 

That also means understanding that going to rehab isn’t a mark of desperation or failure. It’s simply a specialized establishment that has the resources to treat the specific needs of substance use disorders. When you look at drug rehab through this lens, you realize how silly it is that there’s any dissension over the idea that a person seeks drug addiction treatment. 

  1. Educate yourself (and others) 

The main reason why there’s still some stigma attached to addiction and, by extension, addiction treatment, is simply a lack of understanding. People have difficulty having sympathy for things they don’t understand. That’s why it’s crucial for those who have had brushes with addiction treatment to actively correct misinformation they come across. 

Sharing your own story can be a powerful lesson in changing a person’s incorrect perception of substance abuse. If one – just one person walks away from your interaction with a new (and correct) understanding of addiction, that’s one less person another individual has to fear judgment or persecution from.