Overcoming the Stigma of Addiction is Key to Treatment


(BPT) – Addiction is a chronic, but treatable, medical condition. Unfortunately, many people talk about addiction in ways that are stigmatizing, and also use words that portray someone with addiction in a shameful way. To reduce harmful stigma and negativity around substance use disorders, and encourage people to obtain help, it is essential to change the way we view addiction. 

What is stigma? Stigma is defined as discrediting and reducing a person’s struggle with substance use disorders with inaccurate or unfounded beliefs that the person is dangerous, incapable of managing their treatment, or at fault for their condition.

Where does stigma come from? Stigma regarding addiction comes from old inaccurate ideas, and fear of things different or misunderstood. Public attitudes and beliefs about addiction are also affected by the media, which often portray individuals with substance use disorders negatively. When people with substance use disorders are made to feel ashamed of their addiction and their difficulty in stopping the use of drugs or alcohol, they are often discouraged from reaching out to others or from seeking treatment.

The truth about addiction. While addiction was once considered to be due to weakness in a person’s character, decades of scientific research reveals that addiction is not a choice. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says addiction is a brain disorder in which functional changes to brain circuits involved in reward, stress, and self-control make it extraordinarily difficult for a person to resist the urge to continue using drugs, even if it is causing them problems at home, work, or school. In fact, addiction is like many other diseases, such as type 2 diabetes. Both disrupt normal, healthy body function that have serious harmful effects and are influenced by the environments in which a person lives. Often, addiction is preventable and treatable, but if left untreated, it can worsen, leading to disabilities and death. As with other diseases, many people with substance use disorders can recover and continue to lead healthy lives with the appropriate support. Factors that make people more vulnerable to addiction include genetics and family history, the environment in which they grew up, trauma or co-occurring mental health issues, and other social and behavioral factors. Ultimately, addiction doesn’t discriminate. It impacts people of all ages, races, genders, and social classes.

How can we overcome stigma? Reducing stigma starts with each of us examining our own attitudes and beliefs and replacing our fears and judgments with respect and compassion. Simple changes in language can help reduce harmful negativity around substance use disorders. When talking to or about people with substance use disorders, it helps using person-first language, and focusing on the person, not their illness. For example, “a person with a substance use disorder” has a neutral tone and separates the person from his or her disorder. Someone who working to overcome drug use can be described as a “person in recovery.”

We can also educate ourselves on the facts about addiction. It’s important to seek science-based information from a trustworthy source and share that information with others to help them overcome their own misperceptions about addiction. Learn more about how drug use and addiction affect the brain at www.drugabuse.gov