End the Stigma

End the Stigma

The stigma attached to people with addictions is often harmful or false and it interferes with efforts to find relief from the very real damage that addictions cause to individuals, their families, and their communities.

No one is immune as addictions impact people from all walks of life, and it makes no sense that the same people who likely feel the impact of this problem within their own communities or families can also contribute to the biggest barriers to finding help and moving forward: the barriers caused by addiction-related stigma.

The Cambridge dictionary  defines stigma as  “a strong lack of respect for a person or a group of people or a bad opinion of them because they have done something society does not approve of.”

People with addiction are often harnessed with a stigma that brings shame and discrimination and these feelings of shame are often the main reason people do not seek help.

“Junkie. Druggie. Crackhead. Dope Fiend. Alcoholic.”

It doesn’t take much to see these words getting thrown about on social media these days or hearing them in conversation.

Words can hurt.

Addictions, also referred to as substance use disorders, impact people differently than other diseases. Legal issues, damaged relationships, employment problems, school problems, health issues, or mental health problems are all among symptoms of a disease that has an impact on ones behaviors–including the ability to make healthy choices.

No one wakes up one day and decides they want to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. Addiction is described as a progressive, chronic disease of the brain. This means it gets worse over time and never really goes away.

According to the American Society for Addiction Medicine (ASAM), addiction is a combination of genetics (family history) and environment (relating to your surroundings). This is comparable to other chronic diseases like diabetes or hypertension.

This combination “can result in physical changes to the brain’s circuitry, which leads to tolerance, cravings, and the characteristic compulsive and destructive behaviors of addiction that are such a large public health burden for our nation,” states ASAM.

The good news is that those same symptoms that contribute to addiction-related stigmas or discrimination are easily addressed in treatment. These symptoms are diminished when one enters treatment and maintains their recovery.

The not so good news is that only about one in ten Americans who have a substance use disorder gets professional help.

According to the Danya Institute’s Anti-Stigma Toolkit, addiction-related stigmas exist for various reasons. “Some of the reasons why stigmas are sustained are conscious and purposeful, some are unconscious, some are personal, and some are social and institutional.”

The reasons behind addiction-related stigma include:  maintaining distance, expressing disapproval, to feel superior, to feel safe, to promote agendas, to control others, to express fear, and to hurt others.

This only worsens the situation and more benefit can occur when individuals, families, and communities work to prevent addiction-related stigma.

Working to prevent stigma involves various approaches according to the Danya Institute publication and recommendations include:

Learn more about addiction, treatment and recovery. Get informed.

Speak out when you notice misinformation or discrimination and prejudice.

Keep hope alive and don’t give up.

Treat people with dignity.

Think about the whole person.

When, and if, we are able to overcome addiction-related stigma, more individuals will be able to access a life of recovery. They will benefit. Families and their communities will be strengthened.

Words can heal.


Mike Salsbury; Substance Use Program Coordinator

West End Outreach Services

Disclaimer: This Column is not intended as a diagnosis or recommended treatment of a specific condition. Answers are not a replacement for an individual medical evaluation. Individual health concerns should be evaluated by a licensed clinician.