Although there are now more people suffering from addiction than ever before, there are still inevitably many others who don’t innately understand what addiction is like.
Granted, a person doesn’t need to be an addict to know what makes addiction a disease. However, a person does need to take the initiative to become more informed due to the dire consequences that ignorant judgments can have on individuals who are already often poorly understood.
Over the course of human history, we’ve had the misfortune of persecuting many different types of people. Most of us consider the human race to be more civilized and rational today, but there’s so much moral persecution that still occurs.
Specifically, people suffering from addiction are very poorly understood and can often be demonized today, and it’s only making the current addiction epidemic worse for all of us.
How Does Society View Addiction Today?
Years ago, the consensus was that addicts were merely bad people, so it seemed logical that they would be treated as such. Despite scientific discoveries that prove addiction is a brain disease rather than a moral affliction, there hasn’t been a significant change in the prevailing attitudes toward addicts.
A study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins found that people’s opinions of addicts are considerably lower than opinions of the mentally ill.1 This disdain for addicts is because the public largely considers addiction to be a moral failing and proof of poor character. By comparison, a shift in the mental health community has made society more aware of mental illness and has even made it more acceptable for people to discuss their mental health issues more openly.
Numerous investigations into the source of the addiction stigma have pointed to several factors. For one thing, people seem to demonize addicts because so few of them end up seeking treatment. In fact, it’s estimated that only one in 10 people currently experiencing addiction is receiving any sort of treatment.2
It’s also been suggested that much of the cultural stigma comes from the fact that the medical and healthcare fields have only recently begun to see addiction as being a treatable illness. Moreover, the mental health profession has historically discriminated against those with addictive disorders.
Despite its cost to society, addiction has been stigmatized by the government as well, receiving much less funding than what should have been allocated to an issue that affects such a significant portion of the American population. Even with the passage of the Affordable Care Act and other legislation, funding for addiction treatment continues to be insufficient and therefore reinforces the stigma.3
Until quite recently, addicted offenders were sent to prison without hesitation, subjected to inadequate or even the complete lack of rehabilitative treatment offered to inmates. And even when addicts do find effective treatment, the stigmatization of addiction makes it incredibly difficult for them to eventually find employment, stable places to live and re-assimilate into their communities.
Making a Bad Situation Worse
It’s easy to look at an addict and pass judgement, wondering to oneself why he or she doesn’t simply stop abusing the substance that’s taken away their jobs, relationships and health. However, this type of thinking doesn’t encourage those suffering from addiction to come forward and ask for help.
Therefore, the stigmatization of addiction not only discourages people suffering from addiction from seeking treatment, it also puts additional stress on recovering addicts that could potentially push them into a relapse.
Addicts also face constant suspicion and distrust as though others often seem to be waiting for the addict to steal from them or harm them. This persecution serves to demonize people who are actually suffering from a brain disease that prohibits normal thoughts and behavior. Once the disease develops, it becomes increasingly difficult for an individual to break free of the chemical dependence, but the prospect of recovery becomes even more unlikely when being an addict in recovery means dealing with a number of new problems that are imposed upon the individual by his or her society.
By making a recovering addict’s life harder than it should be, stigmatization becomes a potential threat to his or her sobriety. Therefore, the stigmatization of addiction not only discourages people suffering from addiction from seeking treatment, it also puts additional stress on recovering addicts that could potentially push them into a relapse.4
Where to Go From Here?
Obviously, it’s not as simple as putting out a nationwide memo that tells everyone to stop judging addicts. Instead, this is a problem that can only be solved with information and time. If people are more informed about addiction rather than basing their opinions and attitudes on outdated and unfair media portrayals of alcoholics and drug addicts, there would likely be a greater degree of empathy.
The bleak reality is that we’re not likely to change cultural attitudes in a day, a week or even a year. Change is a gradual phenomenon as any recovering addict can attest. However, at Skywood we help those in recovery to minimize the chances of relapse by preparing recovering addicts for any curve balls they might be thrown after returning to their respective communities. All patients are armed with a number of relapse prevention strategies and, through participation in a variety of our group sessions, learn how to promote themselves as sober, healthy and productive members of society. After all, acceptance starts from within.
Written by Dane O’Leary