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: how to deal with the stigma of addiction.
February 6, 2018

Dealing with Mental Health Stigma and “Anti-Addict” Prejudice

: how to deal with the stigma of addiction.

For all the progress made against bigotry, many prejudices are hard to root out. Among those who still feel they suffer constantly from stigma are people with mental illness. Whenever someone commits a random act of violence, news reports implement his mental condition. Every Halloween, asylum-themed haunted houses and “crazies” costumes surface. Meanwhile, the majority of people with mental illness—ordinary-appearing, everyday-functional souls fighting silent battles against anxiety, depression or hallucinations—are largely ignored, and are often afraid to get treatment lest their peers find out and lump them with the “crazies.”

People with chemical addictions—over a third of whom also have mental illness—are particularly stigmatized because their problem is behavioral: everyone can see them doing the wrong thing. It’s not just addicts in denial who manifest the “I can stop any time I want” attitude—the general public seems to think the same. If you’re in recovery and understand the physical nature of addiction, it can really hurt to hear “junkie” remarks rooted in the same popular misconceptions that stigmatize people with mental illness: they’re violent, they always look disheveled, they’re all alike, they never really get better. (There may be times you believe that last point yourself.)

So what do you do when someone makes disparaging remarks without knowing they’re talking about you—or when someone finds out about your problem and starts giving you a wide berth?

FIRST, DON’T GET OBSESSED WITH KEEPING YOUR OWN ADDICTION A SECRET

You don’t have to broadcast the details of your problem far and wide—or even add “I’m an alcoholic” to your “No thank you” when someone offers you a beer. But if you tell outright lies to cover up your attendance at support groups, you’re subtly reinforcing the idea that addiction is something to be ashamed of—and you’ll wind up thinking less of yourself and perhaps increasing your risk of relapse.

LEARN THE ART OF TACTFUL CORRECTION

Some people, bent on covering up their addiction disorder, go so far as to ostensibly second nasty remarks: laughing at jokes, nodding at complaints, even replying “Yes” when asked, “Don’t you agree?” If this sounds like you, talk to your therapist about taking steps to improve your confidence.

On the other hand, responding to derogatory remarks with angry defensiveness doesn’t help either. The other party will be in no mood to listen to reason if you call them names—they’ll probably leave more convinced than ever that “addicts” are low on intelligence and high on violent inclinations.

What you might say instead:

  • “Actually, science has shown that most people with addiction really can’t help wanting a fix. Luckily, effective treatments are available.” Approach this with an attitude of contributing to the conversation rather than “correcting” anyone or delivering a lecture. If you can add an interesting story about recent research or what someone has accomplished in recovery, all the better.
  • “I happen to be in recovery from alcoholism myself, and I find that implication insulting.” The frank-and-firm response often works if said in a calm, low-volume tone.
  • “Do you think I’m like that?” If the offensive remark comes from someone you know, this reply often shocks them into rethinking their generalizations.

WHAT TO DO IF SOMEONE SNUBS YOU

Stigma directed at a specific individual is usually more subtle—often, offending parties don’t even realize what they’re doing. If someone you were on good terms with starts avoiding you because of your addiction, you have three options:

  • Write them off until they learn better. With someone you knew casually, pursuing them may not be worth the effort.
  • Ask to get together and talk about the problem. Recommended if you’ve been good friends or have to deal with each other regularly: often, helping the other party understand your struggle will clear the air.
  • Bring in a third party to act as intermediary. If the problem affects your relationship with someone you have to actively cooperate with, and if attempts to talk one-on-one get nowhere, mediation may be necessary for everyone’s good.

BECOME AN ADVOCATE

And if you’re willing to take a public stand against stigma in general, consider:

  • Writing to editors and producers, asking for corrections or other-side-of-the-story follow-ups when the media presents addiction in a negative light.
  • Writing to government and law-enforcement representatives, asking that effective addiction treatment be more widely available and better publicized, that measures be taken against poorly regulated “treatment” that exploits those with addiction, and that law-enforcement officers and the public be educated on dealing with under-the-influence behavior.
  • Joining a mental/behavioral-health advocacy group such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Helping with their petitions, member recruiting and fundraisers.

Finally, resolve not to be personally swayed by stigma. Never stop believing that you—and others with addiction disorder—can become happy, effective members of society.

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