The Stigma of Substance Abuse


Substance Abuse Stigma

You Are Not Defined By Addiction

Addiction is not a “moral failing” on the part of the individual, which has been a common belief up until recently; it is a chronic brain disease and a broader community issue that affects nearly everyone in one form or another. Despite growing evidence and acceptance of these facts, those suffering, whether it’s the addict or those in close proximity, are still facing the debilitating effects of the stigma surrounding substance abuse addiction.

Individuals experiencing addiction most often face two types of stigma: social stigma and self-stigma. Social stigma refers to a pervasive societal belief, in this case, seeing addiction as a moral deficiency. Self-stigma refers to the belief that afflicted individuals hold about themselves. Most self-stigma stems from social stigma: “Society sees me a certain way, now I see myself that way. I am an addict and that is all I will ever be.” Addicts feel as if they are being defined by their diagnoses and substance abuse stigma, causing them to isolate to escape those feelings. Therefore, addiction is sometimes described as a disease of isolation, which is perpetuated by societal and self-stigmas.

You Are Not Your Diagnosis

 You are not your diagnosis and there is hope for you – whether you feel discouraged in seeking substance abuse treatment, are still suffering, are actively involved in treatment, or are in long-term recovery, you are not alone. Of course, guilt and shame exist, and we all carry these emotions with us. Guilt can be described as “I did something bad” and shame can be described as “I am inherently flawed – I am bad.” Carrying shame around is destructive. Most often, individuals experience shame as a result of social stigma and self-stigma. However, hope is more powerful than shame, and vulnerability may be the solution.

Telling someone we need help is the most vulnerable and courageous thing we can do, and it’s an incredibly effective way to take the path to recovery. When we are met with empathy and compassion as a response, we find hope. When expressing vulnerabilities with another individual, this is the chance to be honest about your feelings and use this opportunity to learn ways to change your attitudes and beliefs about who and what you are. There is a term to describe this type of experience, it is known as the “instillation of hope”. This refers to confidence in the ability to resolve issues and grow when offered support and empathy.

At Project Courage, we take a multidimensional approach to substance abuse treatment for those experiencing mental health and addiction issues. We allow individuals support to develop emotionally, socially, physically, cognitively, morally and spiritually. This type of approach allows a client to navigate away from the isolation of addiction and substance abuse stigma and feeling defined by their diagnoses. Clients feel the “instillation of hope”.

How We Defeat Stigma

YOU HAVE A VOICE. There is a saying in the recovery community: “what grows in the dark will die in the light.” The solution lies in starting the conversation and spreading the message that recovery is possible; that no one has to be defined by addiction. In November 2016, now-former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released a report on alcohol, drugs and health, which details a vision for the future of our nation and outlines prevention, treatment, and recovery options. The report speaks to the biased views of our society – specifically, the views towards addicts and the experiences of those suffering from the disease of addiction.  

I believe there is hope for change on these issues. As an example of the impetus toward change, on October 4, 2015, tens of thousands of people attended the UNITE to Face Addiction rally in Washington, D.C. – an event symbolizing the new movement, which is emerging in America. People in recovery, their family members, and other supporters continue to come together to diminish the stigma associated with substance use disorders and spread the message that people do recover.

A new world is emerging – one where opinions and beliefs about addiction are changing, and the change is mostly because of the dissemination of accurate, factual information about addiction as well as the changing demographics of addiction. The growing networks of Recovery Community Organizations (RCOs), which have multiplied across the country, are generating a resounding message – not just to those who are impacted by addiction but to society as a whole. “Universality” is the sense that others share similar problems and feelings. As the conversation is started and individuals are met with empathy and compassion, universality is established.

The most valuable advice that I can offer you as a Recovery Support Specialist is: you are not alone. So, be proud of who you are because you are so much more than your diagnosis. Speak your truth. Start the conversation.

Author: Jenna Deluca