Challenging the Stigma of AddictionAnna Ciulla
Substance abuse has become the scourge of American society in the last century, rising to prevalence as a national health threat and public enemy. In decades past, alcohol was considered the primary drug of choice for millions of people living simpler, more agriculturally and community oriented lives. However, the incredibly fast pace of modern day living, technological advancements, increasing isolation and higher stress levels associated with the digital era have both expanded and dramatically worsened the scope of addiction.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), in 2014, approximately 20 million adults aged 18 or older suffered from a substance use disorder (SUD) within the past year. Within that population, a staggeringly low 2.5 percent received professional treatment, resulting in an epidemic of crime, overdose, and death— the majority involving opiates. Given this reality, it is no wonder that those suffering from addiction are unjustly stigmatized.
A PARADIGM SHIFT
For many decades, substance abuse, and addiction in general, were considered problems created by a lack of self-control or insufficient willpower. Doctors, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals routinely attributed substance abuse issues to “poor character” or other gross, unfair generalizations. These misunderstandings and improper labels only added to the stigma surrounding addiction.
Thankfully, contemporary scientific discoveries and clinical data have helped inspire a positive change, prompting important agencies like the National Institute on Drug Abuse to identify addiction as a “chronic, often relapsing brain disease” in their official language. Over time, this has gradually helped ease the burden of guilt and shame suffered by so many struggling with addiction. But there is still considerable progress to be made. Due to decades (and arguably centuries) of clinical mislabeling and judgment, millions of people struggling with addiction and in dire need of help never seek treatment. Worse yet, many continue to hide behind the following fear-based justifications:
- Not wanting to experience the shame, judgment or loss of family, friends and coworkers
- Embarrassment at their own inability to “beat the disease”
- Claims that treatment is totally unaffordable and therefore unattainable
- Apprehension over treatment permanently affecting their reputation
- Resignation to the fact that they already have a criminal record or have made too many other costly mistakes
Overcoming the deeply entrenched social stigma surrounding addiction requires a more positive outlook. For example, for those suffering from addiction, taking pride in self-honesty and admitting the need for professional help can go a long way toward overcoming all of the negative, fear-based conditioning. Sometimes, the simple act of acknowledging reality is all someone needs to feel an extra boost of confidence and take action. Also, the following suggestions can prove extremely helpful— not only to those suffering from addiction, but to their coworkers, family and friends:
- Learning to listen without interruption or judgment
- Avoiding negative labels and communication techniques
- Treating all people with kindness, humility and respect
- Standing up for those being mistreated or mislabeled because of their addiction
- Developing a strong social support network of positive, uplifting people
Although the battle with addiction often includes many challenges and leaves many scars, there is always hope for a better life ahead.
Every year, thousands of individuals who once suffered terribly from the disease find freedom. Through the power of self-honesty and dedication, they fight back against criminal records, social judgments, health challenges, and personal and professional failures that once defined them. To those individuals, and to all who aspire to follow in their footsteps, addiction is no longer a self-imposed prison but the source of newfound hope and strength. As the legendary actress and writer Carrie Fisher once said, “Sometimes you can only find Heaven by backing away from Hell.”