Social Stigma & Its Impact on Recovery


how is the social stigma of addiction worse than addiction itself?How could we allow the social stigma of addiction to become worse than having the disease?

In society today there is an abundance of hate and lack of compassion.

We have a tendency to judge first and an inability to be empathetic. Despite the fact that currently, more Americans are in need for substance abuse treatment than ever, there is still a strong social stigma associated with mental health and addiction. I would argue that as a society we do not fully understand how statements we make, or more accurately, the comments we post online can affect a certain population. We live in a world filled with discrimination, racial tension, sexual differences, law enforcement scrutiny, record numbers of overdoses and numerous other factors divide us politically, morally, and socially. It’s not at all easy to be an adolescent in times like these.

What does stigma mean?

For starters there are two different forms of stigma that individuals may face: social stigma and self stigma. Social stigma refers to the beliefs our society holds in regard to certain populations. An example of this could be that: “addicted individuals are weak and not to be trusted.” Self stigma refers to the beliefs individuals hold about themselves and is often times related to their insecurities related to the social stigma beliefs.

Why is understanding social stigma important?

Stigma has been cited in study after study as one of the most common barriers to treatment. This means that individuals who suffer from substance abuse or other conditions do not seek the appropriate and necessary help due to the fear of how they will be perceived. Unfortunately these are very real concerns. The risks involved for an individual acknowledging their struggles and seeking treatment may vary with each individual. Some may fear a personal backlash, such as being perceived weak or not trustworthy. Conversely, others may have professional concerns, such as loss of employment, or being professionally ostracized.

Regardless of the reason, what it really comes down is fear. Fear that their reputation and social perception will be adversely affected. The counter argument may be that they are really just “excuses” and that people make the decision to not only use, but to not seek help, and it very well could be. However, to discredit the barrier that stigma presents or to not acknowledge the fear and risks associated with admitting and seeking treatment would be a mistake. When individuals are more fearful of how they will be perceived by their family, social, communal or occupational systems then they are of continuing to live a life of misery it speaks volumes to the stigma we as a society place upon them.

How do we address social stigma in our society?

I do not believe that we will ever live in a society that doesn’t hold stigma or negative perceptions of certain groups of people. It is an unfortunate and hard truth. Think about your own preconceived notions of addiction. What does an addict look like in your mind? What feelings and thoughts are involved with that image? In my role as Director of Admissions here at Project Courage I encounter it daily. I have been in countless sessions with family members who are fearful of people finding out that their child is enrolled in treatment, or families hesitant to have their child enrolled in group therapy because they don’t want their child exposed to “addicts.” These statements aren’t wrong or invalid. Just to be clear, I am not trying to shame those families out there who have had similar beliefs, I am only trying to illustrate the significant hold stigma has upon our society.

Despite the evolving neuroscience indicating addiction as a disease, it is still a taboo subject. I often make the comparison to the LGBTQ community. For years this community had to hide their identity, hide who they were and who they were born as, because of the backlash they potentially faced. Then the movement came which lead to this community finally being recognized and granted their right as human beings to marry and no longer live in fear of public ridicule for “coming out.” When I was in high school there weren’t any discussions about LGBTQ or services. Now, there are specific groups in our schools, parades and marches, all aimed at providing a safe haven as well as sending a very clear and direct message that it is ok to be who you are.

How did this happen? Was it just education? Was it just legislation?

I would suggest that while it was most likely a combination of aspects, it was largely due to this community and its supports breaking free of the stigma and making the conscious decision to no longer live in fear of social stigma.

If we are to see similar changes in the substance abuse field we must do the same. Fortunately, our revolution is already underway. However, it falls upon each and every last one of us supporters, allies and survivors to continue to educate and advocate for our stigmatized population. It doesn’t matter if addiction is a disease. It doesn’t matter if the inflicted individual made the choice to use drugs. What matters is the humanistic element of helping one another, or at the very least being open to understanding what an individual who is suffering is going through. This isn’t a plea to pledge your allegiance, but rather a proposal for understanding.

I have yet to meet someone who wanted to be an addict. It’s not like people wake up and say, you know what, I’d like to throw my life and future away! Yes, they made a decision to use, who knows why, maybe it started out as fun, maybe it was due to a medical condition or surgery, and for me it really doesn’t matter. What does matter? Once the switch of addiction has been turned on, it’s on. While some people can make it through without, there are many who cannot complete such a monumental task.

For those in recovery or still suffering:

My statement to you is be proud of who you are. You have made mistakes. We all have. There is no shame in trying to seek help and change your life for the better. The right people will always find their way into your life, and the wrong people will find their way out. Have courage, be vulnerable, and admit your struggles. I wouldn’t wish addiction on my worse enemy, it is a disease, which has ruined and claimed many lives and has torn countless families apart. There are enough challenges in treatment, let’s do our best to not make it any harder. So the next time you hear someone say: “addicts are weak,” or “it’s not a disease,” or “they made their own bed and now they lie in it.” I would challenge you to try and engage in a discussion and see why this individual, regardless if it’s a disease, regardless if it’s their own decision, is not worth a second chance or acceptance or empathy.

By: Eric Vingo, CAC