Whether you think you know someone who is struggling with addiction, chances are you do. And the more understand about what makes it a disease, the more you can help break the stigma of misinformation that keeps those struggling with it from pursuing the help they need.
The truth is, over the course of human history, we as a society tend to persecute or marginalize those we don’t understand. Here we are in the 21st century, more civilized, rational and educated, but we still tend to judge or persecute those who are different from us.
How Does Society View Addiction Today?
Years ago, the consensus was that people who abused drugs were just bad people, so it seemed logical to treat them as such. For decades now, scientific research has proven that addiction is a brain disease rather than a moral affliction, and yet the prevailing attitude toward addicts hasn’t changed much.
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 at large considers addiction to be 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 origins of this stigma point 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 surrounding addiction is due to the fact that the medical and healthcare fields have only recently begun to see addiction as a treatable illness. In fact, mental health institutions have historically discriminated against those with addictive disorders.
Despite its cost to society, addiction has been stigmatized by the government as well. Addiction research receives much less funding than what should be 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, reinforcing the stigma.3
Until recently, addicted offenders were sent to prison and denied any rehabilitative services.If and when these prisoners struggling with addiction finally find effective treatment, the stigma of their history makes it almost impossible to find employment and appropriate living options in their communities.
Making a Bad Situation Worse
It’s easy to look at an addict and pass judgment. It’s difficult not to wonder why the addicted person doesn’t simply stop using a substance that’s taken away his or her job, relationships and health. But this type of thinking is at best misinformed and, at worst, it 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.
Those struggling with addiction issues often face suspicion, discrimination and rejection, as if all addicts are violent. This persecution demonizes 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 from chemical dependence. The prospect of recovery becomes even more unlikely when a person must cope with new problems imposed upon him by society.
By making a recovering addict’s life harder than it should be, stigmatization becomes a potential threat to his sobriety. The stigmatization of addiction not only discourages people suffering 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?
Changing society’s attitude about those struggling with addiction requires more than putting out a nationwide memo that says “Hey Everyone, Stop Judging!” If only it was that easy. This is a problem that can only be solved with information and time. When people have accurate information about addiction instead of basing their attitudes on skewed, fictional account on television, perhaps we’d see 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. Recovery is a one-day-at-a-time commitment to a lifelong journey. At Skywood we help those in recovery minimize the chance of relapse by preparing them for any relapse triggers they might encounter after returning to their respective communities. All patients are armed with relapse prevention strategies and learn how to promote themselves as sober, healthy and productive members of society. After all, acceptance starts from within.
1 Stephanie Desmon and Susan Morrow / Published June 4, 2017. “Drug addiction viewed more negatively than mental illness, Johns Hopkins study shows.” The Hub. 01 Oct. 2014. Web. 07 June 2017.
2 September 28, 2010 by Join Together Staff. “New Data Show Millions of Americans with Alcohol and Drug Addiction Could Benefit from Health Care Reform.” Partnership for Drug-Free Kids – Where Families Find Answers. Web. 07 June 2017.
4 Sack, David. “5 Myths About Addiction that Undermine Recovery.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 14 May 2013. Web. 07 June 2017.
Written by Dane O’Leary