Eliminating the Stigma of Addiction

Substance abuse is an incredibly widespread and serious issue. When people do not receive the treatment they need, addiction causes serious long-term physical, mental, and emotional problems. Further, addiction takes thousands of people’s lives every year. In 2018, 67,367 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses. While we can’t blame all overdoses on one factor, we can consider the effect of stigma. Although we have overdose-reversing medications for drugs and alcohol, many of these resources are underused. Many times, people don’t receive or seek out the treatment they need because of the stigma of addiction.

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Affects Of Social Stigma

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, social stigma can be defined as “Fear and anxiety about a disease can lead to social stigma, which is negative attitudes and beliefs toward people, places, or things. Stigma can lead to labeling, stereotyping, discrimination, and other negative behaviors toward others.” Not only does social stigma affect the way other people perceive the person who is experiencing addiction. Stigma also affects how those suffering from addiction perceive themselves. Internalized social stigma can help explain the gaps we see between those who need treatment and those who receive treatment. Unlike other treatable diseases, addiction brings a stigma with it. This stigma often keeps people from accepting or seeking out the help that they need. 

If you live in Ohio and you have questions about how stigma affects addiction, please call today at 614-502-6247.



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Disparity Between Those Who Need Treatment and Those who Receive Treatment

For example, according to a national survey conducted in 2018, 6,958 Americans needed addiction treatment for illicit drug abuse, but they didn’t receive it. Further, 14,012 Americans needed treatment for alcohol use disorder, but they didn’t receive it. Finally, 18,531 Americans needed treatment for substance use disorder, but they didn’t receive it. Clearly, thousands of people who need treatment are missing out. However, people’s reasons for not receiving treatment vary widely.

A different national survey carried out between 2010 and 2013 explains why people don’t receive the treatment they need. In the study, participants gave their reasons for not receiving treatment. The reasons range between not having enough money for treatment to not feeling ready to stop using drugs or alcohol. Additionally, several participants’ answers reflect internalized stigma. For instance, 7,000 Americans believed the treatment would not help them. Further, 9,000 people did not receive treatment because they didn’t want other people to find out. Finally, 16,000 people did not receive treatment because they believed it might cause their neighbors and community to have a negative opinion of them. All of these reasons are the direct result of a person in need denying themselves treatment simply because they have internalized the stigma surrounding their addictions.

How Ohio is Fighting to Eliminate the Stigma of Addiction

As we have discussed, many people who need treatment do not receive it because of the stigma of addiction. While there are ways to treat substance use, people sometimes don’t take advantage of the treatments. The stigma of addiction is an umbrella term to include stereotypes about addiction as well as internalized feelings about addiction. Some common stereotypes include that those who have suffered addiction often steal; that those who have suffered addiction aren’t intelligent; and that those who have suffered addiction have physical markers that will prohibit them from fully reentering society.

Why Stigma isn’t an Effective Motivator

Researchers have conducted studies about whether stigma is an effective motivator for those who suffer from addiction. Some researchers have thought that the stigma of addiction holds users accountable to a standard of acceptable behavior. With this thinking, stigma would help those suffering overcome their addictions. However, more recent studies have found that the opposite is true. One study found that eliminating shame would help people make positive changes in their lives.

One participant of the study said, “I think the further that you go into addiction the further that, you know, you’re labeled and you’re stigmatized by being an addict. And the further that you go into addiction the harder it is to get out.” Those who suffer from addiction experience stigma both from outside influences and from themselves. Stigma can look like a lot of different things to those experiencing it. Most of all, stigma can affect how people view their own potential to get better.

Common Stereotypes

Those suffering from addiction often internalize shame because of physical markers of addiction. For example, people can see their own scars or rotting teeth as signs that they can never fully reenter society. Participants in the study worried about showing their scars in a job interview or on a first date. Another stereotype addicts often internalize is that people view them as thieves. One participant of the study said the following:

“I mean there’s a time in my life where I’d be paranoid about sitting around other people’s possessions, you know. ‘Cause if anything went missing generally nine out of ten people in the room would be dismissed and I’d get the blame. There’s a lot of discomfort within yourself after coming out of that lifestyle or existence, really.”

Internalized Stigma

Not only do people suffering from addiction feel afraid around others’ possessions. They also feel that others see them as less intelligent. One participant said, “Sometimes people think addicts are stupid, dumb idiots.” However, this messaging didn’t affect his perception of himself. He added, “I’ve met a lot of really intelligent addicts, you know, so I don’t think that at all.” He also said, “I know I’ve got potential as well but there’s just something in me that, yeah, keeps self-sabotaging.” Even in this example, where the participant rejects the stereotype, he still says that “something in me…keeps self-sabotaging.” This admission of self-sabotage shows that he still believes that there is something about him as an addicted person that will prevent him from fully recovering.

Finally, those suffering from addiction can often see themselves as being less worthy of help than others are. For example, one participant said the following: “I struggle [with] people offering me help; I still think that I’m not worthy of it,” he said. Then he went on, repeating the explanation that his treatment counselor had given him. The participants’ counselor believes he does not accept help because he “me myself think[s] I’m not worthy of anyone’s help.” All of these examples show how pervasive internalized shame and stigma can be. Unlike other treatable diseases, addiction brings a stigma with it. This stigma often keeps people from accepting or seeking out the help that they need.

How Ohio is Eliminating Addiction Stigma

Clearly, internalizing the stigma of addiction can affect those who suffer from addiction. Stigma can keep people from receiving the treatment they need. Eventually, it could cost them their lives. However, organizations in Ohio are working hard to help people receive the help they need. One organization is called Ohio Citizen Advocates for Addiction Recovery (OCAAR). The organization’s purpose is to eliminate the stigma surrounding addiction. Their mission statement reads, “Our mission to reduce stigma and eliminate discrimination through social change is an important endeavor that our staff, Board of Directors, and volunteers are passionate and committed to.  Our program areas are advocacy work, educational outreach, and recovery support services.”

OCAAR focuses on education and advocacy for people in Ohio. OCAAR’s educational plan includes Deliberative Dialogue. The Deliberative Dialogue allows people to have important conversations about complex issues such as addiction. Additionally, OCAAR focuses on advocacy. In their Advocacy Strategy Toolkit, they outline five ways to advocate for eliminating addiction stigma. The five steps include creating goals, forming a coalition, gathering information and forming solutions, choosing a strategy, and writing plans. The goal of advocacy is to influence policies and lawmakers that have the power to create a safer place for those recovering from addictions.

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We want to help those who are suffering from the stigma of addiction. If you or a loved one feels held back by the stigma of addiction, please call today. We can answer any questions you have about addiction. We can also direct you to a treatment plan that is right for you. Don’t hesitate; contact us today at 614-502-6247.