Stigma is a powerful force and causes addicts to feel ashamed and to keep secrets. Both addicts and those of us who judge addicts need to realize that addiction is a true disease of the brain and the body. If we can learn to view addiction the way we do asthma, high blood pressure or heart disease, we can bring addicts out of the shadows of shame and get them the help they need.
The Stigma of Addiction
Addiction is not the first disease to be stigmatized. It took years to make a dent in the shame and judgment associated with being HIV-positive, although it is still not stigma-free. The fact that stigma can be conquered to some extent is hopeful, but the road ahead is long and twisting. No disease carries more stigma than addiction. Even mental illnesses are less stigmatized. Most people still see addiction as something that is a choice and the addict as a person with a moral and personal flaw.
Research confirms the fact that the stigma associated with addiction is still going strong. One study found through surveys that people had more negative attitudes and views about addiction than mental health. For instance, more of the survey participants said they would be unwilling to accept an addict in the family than someone with a mental illness. More also reported that they find discrimination toward addicts acceptable.
This last statement illustrates just why stigma is so dangerous. Stigma leads to discrimination and prejudice. People are less likely to trust addicts, hire them, rent to them or associate with them in general. If an addict understands this dynamic, why would he admit to having a problem? Why would he ask for help knowing that so many people view him as less worthy and are willing to treat him differently? And why wouldn’t he think less of himself if everyone else does? Stigma leads to prejudice, discrimination, lack of treatment and total hopelessness for individuals.
Working Toward a Stigma-Free World
For Hispanics, stigma is particularly important and burdensome. Addiction is a disease that impacts people of all races and ethnicities, but among Hispanics it is on the rise. Stigma is particularly strong in the Hispanic community when it comes to addiction, and it is crucial that we work toward reducing it so that addicts can get help. Hispanics are less likely to get treatment because of stigma than Caucasians.
Erasing stigma begins with education and exposure. Ignorance breeds stigma. When we all understand more about the disease of addiction, we can be more empathetic and less judgmental. Another way to help reduce stigma is to change the language associated with addiction. When we use words like abuse, abuser, clean or even addict, we place judgment and stigma on the person with the disease. Changing language may seem trivial, but it can be very powerful.
Anonymity is another factor that needs to change. Remaining anonymous in 12-step groups has long been a hallmark of addiction treatment, but it perpetuates stigma and shame. Those struggling with addiction need to be open about it. Finally, we need better treatment and insurance coverage for addiction. When addiction is treated like any other disease and covered accordingly, people will begin to view it as the medical condition it is. Changes in laws have forced insurance companies to make changes, but addiction treatment is still limited. Treatment needs to be appropriate for the chronic nature of the disease. Stigma is changing and shifting for addiction, but there is much more work to be done.