Because of the opioid crisis, the public has been more well-informed in recent years about addiction. Most of us know someone who has been affected by opioids in some way, and that tends to force us to examine our assumptions about addiction and who becomes addicted.
Despite this progress, there is still a long way to go. For example, a 2018 poll found that while a slim majority of Americans now believe that addiction is a disease that requires treatment, many people still hold inaccurate views about addiction and biases against people who struggle with substance use disorders. For example, 44 percent of respondents said they believe opioid addiction results from a lack of willpower or discipline and fewer than 20 percent said they would be willing to closely associate with someone with a substance use disorder.
Clearly, the stigma of addiction is real, and it is often a factor that makes people reluctant to seek treatment. The following are some things you can do to help reduce the stigma of addiction.
Educate yourself about addiction.
You can’t help others if your own beliefs are wrong or outdated. There are many resources available online, including information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Public Health, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Organizations such as AA, NA, and SMART Recovery also offer a lot of free literature online and at meetings. Additionally, there are many excellent books about addiction, including In the Land of Hungry Ghosts, by Gabor Mate, High Price, by Carl Hart, and Unbroken Brain by Maia Szalavitz.
Addiction science is relatively new and experts disagree, even on certain fundamental details. Therefore, it’s a good idea to get some different perspectives. However, most experts agree on several points about addiction. First, it seems clear that genes account for about half your addiction risk, so if you have a parent or a sibling with a substance use disorder, you are at greater risk. Second, addiction is far more common — between two and five times as common — among people with mental health issues. Third, trauma and adverse childhood experiences significantly increase your risk of addiction. The more you know about addiction, the more you can help circulate accurate information and prevent the spread of misinformation.
Beware of stigmatizing language.
It’s important to pay attention to how you communicate about addiction both in speech and writing. You want to especially be on guard against stigmatizing and dehumanizing language. Never use words like “crackhead” or “junkie.” It’s also important to beware of more subtle stigmatizing language. Just calling someone an “addict” is stigmatizing and it’s still fairly common in media coverage, even sympathetic media coverage. Similarly, “substance use disorder” is preferable to “substance abuse.” Stigmatizing language reduces someone to a label rather than recognizing that a real person is struggling with a real problem.
When you talk about addiction or someone with a substance use disorder, imagine that it’s your friend, sibling, parent, or child and don’t say anything you wouldn’t say about them or to them. It’s possible that even in a small group of friends, someone in your company might have a substance use issue that you don’t know about. Remember that addiction is a tragedy, it happens for reasons that are mostly beyond your control, and it can happen to anyone.
Correct misinformation when you hear it.
While paying attention to your own language is a good start, it’s also helpful to correct misinformation when you hear it. If someone uses stigmatizing language or repeats false information, correct them. Most of the time, people just don’t know any better and they’re just repeating what they heard somewhere. When you contest wrong information, you might change the mind of the speaker, and you will certainly reach the listeners, as well. They might not otherwise know about alternative viewpoints.
Don’t just limit yourself to correcting misinformation you hear in person. When you see stigmatizing language or stories in the media, either in news stories or fictional representations, say something. Often, these sources prefer to be fair and simply aren’t aware of their mistakes.
Support treatment over punishment.
One of the biggest ways addiction stigma matters is that public opinion affects public policy. If people believe that individuals with substance use disorders are dangerous criminals who chose addiction, they are likely to favor punishment over treatment and resent public money being used for harm reduction and treatment.
However, people who are more informed know that the scientific evidence supports treatment and harm reduction. For example, drug courts give people the choice of treatment or jail and those who choose treatment — which is most — have much better outcomes. Since so many people have now been personally affected by the opioid crisis, most politicians are pretty reasonable in their attitudes toward addiction these days, but there are still some who hold to the old punitive view. Support politicians at every level who advocate for treatment over those who promote punishment, and make sure your representatives know your views on addiction.
Share your experiences with addiction when appropriate.
Finally, when appropriate, consider sharing your own experiences with addiction and recovery. Addiction largely remains an invisible problem and people often don’t even realize when a close friend or relative is struggling. This allows many negative stereotypes to persist. Sharing your own experience can put a real face on addiction and it might encourage someone to seek help if they know they aren’t alone.
The stigma of addiction remains a real problem. Not only does it discourage people from getting help, but it makes people feel less than; it makes them feel more ashamed when they are already struggling. By educating yourself, correcting errors when you hear them, and being open when possible, you can do your part to fight the stigma of addiction. At The Foundry, we know that addiction is something you go through, not something that defines you. We give our clients the tools they need to be resilient and live more fulfilling lives. To learn more, call us today at 1-844-955-1066 or explore our website.