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The Stigma of Addiction: Breaking Free

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There are stigmas associated with numerous things today including addiction. Stigmas can lead to discrimination and unfair treatment of certain individuals or specific groups. When it comes to addiction, the associated stigmas can seriously impede a person’s ability to seek treatment–and to stay in recovery. 

Stigma is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in the following way: 

 “a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something”

The American Psychological Association defines stigma in this way:

“the negative social attitude attached to a characteristic of an individual that may be regarded as a mental, physical, or social deficiency. A stigma implies social disapproval and can lead unfairly to discrimination against and exclusion of the individual.”

There are stigmas associated with a lot of things these days. For example, there are stigmas surrounding mental health, political association, income level, and more. Stigmas are unfair and leave entire groups of people misjudged and often unfairly discriminated against. In addition, individuals make certain choices based on the stigmas that may be associated with them. 

Often, this can lead to the individual remaining stuck in patterns, situations, and illnesses for far longer than they should. When it comes to the stigma of addiction, this is all too true. According to the National Association on Mental Illness (NAMI), there are seven types of stigmas. It’s important to understand each of these in order to truly see how destructive and pervasive stigmas can be. 

Understanding the 7 Types of Stigmas

NAMI lists seven types of stigmas. As mentioned many of these stigmas lead others to unfairly judge another person, but, stigmas can also lead people to unfairly judge themselves. And, some individuals with the best intentions, can seriously undermine the person who has the stigma attached and their goals. 

It’s important to understand that while some types of stigmas result in individuals being unfairly excluded, other stigmas work in a different way. A well-intentioned person may go to the other extreme and try to be overly inclusive or helpful to the person. And while this may not be as damaging as the negative behaviors, it can still be considered unfair treatment based on a stigma. 

1. Public Stigma

When the public as a whole supports negative stigmas major discrimination can result. For example, the public stigma associated with addiction is that people with addiction issues lack willpower, will steal from you, and are unable to be contributing members of society. 

2. Self Stigma

Sadly, this is when an individual internalizes the public stigma associated with them. For example, someone with a mental health issue may internalize the messages of society about people with mental health disorders. 

3. Perceived Stigma

This is the belief that others have stigmas around a certain problem or situation. For example, someone with depression may mistakenly think that their boss or coworkers think they’re lazy because they take PTO days when they are severely depressed. 

4. Stigma by Association 

This type of stigma also known as courtesy stigma and associative stigma occurs when the stigmas associated with an individual’s challenges are linked to their family, friends, or associates. For example, if someone is suicidal, those who hear about it may think their family members also have some type of depression or mental health issue. 

5. Structural Stigma

Structural stigma refers to situations where institutions enact certain policies and procedures that unfairly discriminate against certain groups such as those with mental health issues. For example, in certain countries, individuals with mental health diagnoses are forbidden to do certain things. In Lithuania, individuals with mental health issues are forbidden by law to own a home. 

6. Health Practitioner Stigma

Unfortunately, this type of stigma continues to exist today and can impact an individual’s health care. In this situation, a health care practitioner lets their stigmas associated with certain conditions influence the care they provide. For example, if a person with depression goes to their primary care practitioner about being tired, the physician may write it off to depression and not take the issue seriously. 

7. Label Avoidance

This is one of the most harmful types of stigmas and keeps many people suffering needlessly. Label avoidance is when an individual avoids seeking help because they don’t want the associated labels and stigmas. For example, someone with a substance use disorder may not go for treatment because they fear they will be unfairly judged at work or school and be labelled. 

As you can see, stigmas exist and are more common than many think. When it comes to the stigma of addiction and stigmas associated with other mental health disorders the consequences can be deadly. For numerous reasons, both alcohol use disorder and substance use disorders can lead to serious health consequences–including death. 

How Stigmas Keep People Sick and Suffering 

When an individual feels they are unable to reach out and get help for their problem, they will remain in these unhealthy, life-robbing situations indefinitely. And, as mentioned, when it comes to addiction, this can be deadly. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drug overdose deaths reached their highest levels yet in 2021 topping 100,000 deaths in this one-year period. This rate is up by 28.5% from the previous year when overdose deaths were just over 78,000 people. As you can see, if someone has an addiction issue and waits to get help–it can be too late. 

What’s more, each year about 95,000 adults in the United States die from alcohol-related causes according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). When you combine those two statistics, that’s nearly 200,000 lives lost each year due to addiction. And, when there is so much help available for those with an alcohol or substance use disorder, this just shouldn’t be. 

According to the NIAAA, there are about 14.5 million individuals in the U.S. over the age of 12 with an alcohol use disorder. And, of these millions, only about 7% get treatment for this. The National Survey and Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported that in 2019 about 19.7 individuals had a substance abuse issue and only about 10% of them will ever get the treatment they need. 

When stigmas exist and run rampant about addiction and mental health issues it keeps people sick and dying. It’s essential that the stigmas be broken so that these millions of individuals and the people who love them can begin to live in recovery. 

Some may say that if someone really wanted to ‘get better’ they’d get help. And while this is partially accurate, there are many people who want to get help but due to stigmas and the consequences of these stigmas, they don’t seek help.

It’s important to understand that the consequences of stigmas are very real. To some, it may seem like stigmas don’t really exist or that they don’t actually impact individuals. This is far from the truth. 

For example, an individual with an alcohol problem may not seek help because they are concerned about losing their job. And while jobs are generally protected when someone seeks treatment for addiction, the fear–and real consequences–still exist. This individual may fear that once they return from treatment they aren’t included on certain projects, that their responsibilities are cut back, and that when the time comes to trim the fat in employees they’ll be the first to go. 

Sadly, while a person’s job may technically be protected if they seek help, these other more subtle negative consequences not only can occur but often do occur. Most everyone needs their job, their career, and to be able to provide. Facing losing this ability can leave many people drinking and using drugs. These individuals are often too fearful of what may happen if they get help. 

It’s important to understand that just because there are policies in place to protect individuals seeking help for addiction or mental health issues that doesn’t mean that negative consequences aren’t real and don’t happen. They do it every day. 

In addition to getting initial treatment for an addiction issue, stigmas can also contribute to individuals relapsing and being unable to maintain their sobriety. In some occupations, consuming alcohol–and in some situations–drugs is the norm. When an individual is sober and opts out of a happy hour, parties, and other events where alcohol is present, it may result in consequences at the workplace too. 

When an individual doesn’t participate in these types of work functions they can be viewed as not being a team player and not being dedicated to the team and company as much as others. In these cases, the individual is left with either revealing they are in recovery and don’t drink or being misjudged that they don’t care as much as other employees. 

If the person shares that they are in recovery, they will surely face some type of stigma even in the most open-minded workplaces. They may be excluded from certain events moving forward and even working on certain accounts or in certain groups. This can negatively impede their career advancement. When under this type of pressure on a regular basis, someone in recovery can all too often decide to drink again. When this happens, the social stigma associated with addiction has won. 

While many people don’t think about stigmas on a day-to-day basis, others, such as those in recovery or those struggling with an AUD or SUD often do. Whether it’s facing trying to seek help or attempting to remain connected with colleagues, stigmas impact people with both addiction issues and mental health problems on a daily basis. 

How to Break Stigmas

It may seem impossible to break the stigmas associated with addiction and mental health issues. And while it’s virtually impossible to break all of these stigmas, there are steps individuals can take to help this. One of the most important ways is to speak out about addiction and mental health issues. 

Individuals can talk openly about their own recovery and struggles with addiction or mental health issues. In addition, if this is uncomfortable, people can speak in general about addiction and mental health. Showcasing individuals who have broken free from addiction and are in recovery are great ways to break the stigma of addiction. 

Sharing stories of recovery and accomplishment with others either in person or by social media are great places to start talking about these disorders and raising awareness in regards to what it is and what it isn’t. 

Despite all of the advances in breaking these harmful stigmas, there are still ideas associated with addiction and mental health that are inaccurate. Talking about the reality of both addiction and mental health–both the good and the bad–are great ways to open the doorway to breaking the stigmas. 

Today, there are many athletes, actors, musicians, and the like talking about their own experiences with both addiction and mental health issues. It’s vital that these highly visible, highly regarded individuals continue to do so. The conversation about addiction and mental health needs to be out in the open. Millions and millions of people live with addiction and mental health issues, it’s time to talk about it openly and with love. 

Having a mental health disorder, alcohol use disorder, or substance use disorder doesn’t mean you are less than, it simply means you are human. Once the stigmas are broken more people will start to reveal their own struggles and healing will begin. 

If you or someone you love is living with an alcohol or substance problem, or a mental health disorder, Futures Recovery Healthcare is here for you. Our caring, compassionate team members understand just how difficult it can be to reach out for help and to get sober. Many members of our team have experienced addiction first-hand. If you’re ready to stop the pain of addiction and start living, Futures wants to help. Contact us online to learn more or call us at 866-804-2098.

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