The societal stigmas that surround addiction and substance abuse have existed for more than a century. Perceptions of people who struggle with drug and alcohol dependence are often skewed by the adverse symptoms accompanying addiction, such as unpredictable behavior and impaired judgment. The specific attitudes of shame and humiliation associated with substance use disorders have been an effective deterrent for individuals considering seeking addiction treatment. This antagonistic view of substance abuse and those who struggle with it has resulted in many drug and alcohol addictions going unchecked and untreated, further contributing to one of the biggest health issues in the nation.
What is Stigma?
Stigmas are described as a complex set of beliefs and attitudes towards a specific group of individuals. While stigmas can be seen as a tool to deter people from participating in unhealthy behaviors like problematic substance use, this often results in the marginalization and debasement of certain individuals. Studies suggest that substance abuse is more stigmatized than other health conditions. The link between substance use disorders and stigma can be more complex, obscuring attempts to construct social acceptance of those who suffer from addiction. Substance use and its attributes are stereotypically associated with social issues like poverty, health conditions like AIDS, mental illness, and unsafe and criminal behaviors.
Stigma’s Impact on Society
These attitudes and beliefs can negatively influence the function and purpose of structures and systems throughout our country. The impact of these presumptions often leads to discrimination and rejection of people in our society, such as legal systems and the workforce. Certain laws and policies uphold these detrimental views by targeting stigmatized individuals disproportionately. At the same time, employment opportunities can be scarce for those who find themselves classified as a liability based on assumptions about people who struggle with addiction. But where do these societal stigmas come from?
The knowledge, or lack thereof, about substance use disorders and addiction plays a significant role in the public’s perception of individuals who suffer from these afflictions. Studies have shown that individuals struggling with substance abuse are considered more unstable and dangerous than people suffering from mental illnesses like depression or schizophrenia. They have also been categorized as weak-willed, even though there has been substantial evidence demonstrating that people suffering from addiction are just as willing to participate in treatment as those who suffer from other chronic health conditions like diabetes. These particular attitudes and beliefs are also affected by the public’s level of experience and contact with people that have substance use disorders. The absence of meaningful contact between the public and individuals affected by addiction can adversely influence their opinions and understanding of substance abuse.
How the Media Stigmatizes Addiction
The media largely influences the public’s attitude towards many different social issues. Because of this, its coverage and portrayal of addiction have been an essential factor in constructing negative perceptions of substance abuse for members of society. Representation of addiction in the media, as seen in magazines, movies, television, and social media, will often fuel reactions of fear and contempt, exacerbating the perceived dangers of those who suffer from substance use disorders. These portrayals emphasize individual culpability in their addiction, and it has sometimes depicted treatment as ineffectual.
Stigma can Impact Ethnic Groups
Certain prejudices about culture, race, and ethnicity that are deeply ingrained in our interpersonal relationships also tend to play a large part in cultivating stigmas around addiction. This often results in a double stigma, an intersection of bias where individuals feel discriminated against not only for their substance use but also for their race or ethnicity. These issues can compound into structural inequalities, increasing reproach of individuals suffering from substance abuse. A study conducted to evaluate certain beliefs about persons who inject drugs demonstrated that participants were more likely to associate Latino/as suffering from substance use disorders with deserving punishment rather than help compared to White individuals who also participated in problematic substance use.
Consequences of Addiction Stigma
Many years ago, medicine and its research had concluded that substance use disorder is a chronic health condition, just like heart disease or diabetes. Despite this, many people still believe that addiction is a moral failing. These adverse perceptions are illustrated in healthcare systems across the United States by disparities in funding for research and treatment for substance abuse. Other manifestations of these structural stigmas include limited access to behavioral health treatment and services, along with a lower quality of care for individuals struggling with substance use disorders. Some healthcare professionals may outright refuse to treat people suffering from substance abuse based on the erroneous belief that addiction is self-inflicted and voluntary. This reiterates the notion that individuals struggling with addiction may be dissuaded from seeking out the treatment they need due to this type of stigmatization and out of fear of treatment being inadequate or completely denied. Most medical fields outside of behavioral health are simply not equipped with the knowledge necessary to understand the depth of addiction.
Addiction and the Law
When looking at the relationship between addiction and criminal justice systems, there is an overwhelming assumption that substance use disorders are primarily a criminal issue instead of a health concern. Sadly, these stigmatizing attitudes and behaviors within the criminal justice system are broadly accepted and enshrined in policy. Typically, substance use disorders are not looked at as an illness in need of treatment but as reckless criminal behavior that needs to be penalized with confinement in order to protect society. The exceptionally harsh punishments associated with crimes involving drug use function as a tool to brand these people as unwanted by their community. Feeling ostracized and marginalized by society can push individuals back into a cycle of substance abuse and dependence, aggravating feelings of guilt and shame.
Stigma Can Cause Unemployment
Research has shown that individuals with criminal histories related to substance abuse have a much harder time finding gainful employment due to societal stigmas about addiction. These negative views are especially prevalent when considering the perspective of more conservative or religious employers or employers who are located within a rural area due to a larger amount of familiarity within the community. Stigmas that contribute to employer discrimination are often rooted in beliefs that individuals who suffer or have suffered from substance abuse decrease productivity and safety in the workplace. These pessimistic influences tend to suppress an individual’s ability to obtain employment, which can significantly affect their quality of life and ultimate sobriety.
As individuals face criticism and discrimination in society, they are led to an awareness of public and structural stigmas of addiction. This experience can lead to internalizing these negative perceptions in a process known as self-stigma. When applying these stigmas to themselves, individuals often experience maladaptive behavior and identity transformation resulting in strong, disconcerting feelings of shame and embarrassment. These feelings often lead to struggles with low-self esteem and low self-efficacy, a personal judgment described as a decreased belief in one’s ability to productively contribute to their life and to society. Harmful sentiments like these can also extend to how they believe friends and family view them. They may live in fear of judgment and attempt to avoid this reaction by pushing loved ones away completely. This can result in profound loneliness and isolation, another catalyst for substance abuse.
The “Why Try” Effect
These components can culminate into a phenomenon known as the “why try” effect, a response that discourages individuals from pursuing opportunities that can help them reach their goals in life because they feel they are not respected or appreciated. The damaging backlash of stigmatization amplifies this effect, further alienating individuals who already feel disparaged by society. Without positive feelings of self-worth, self-respect, and important social ties, many people who are suffering from substance use disorder will feel less inclined to seek out and begin treatment for their addiction.
How to End Stigmas about Addiction
Effective interventions are necessary to influence the willingness of an individual to participate in treatment and engage in recovery programs. To begin dismantling the foundation of systems and structures that defend stigmas about addiction and substance use disorders, we have to evaluate and adjust the processes in which we use to make decisions. We also need to reconsider the policies and regulations we have in place that encourage methods of discrimination and prejudice. Implementing strategies to improve attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors associated with addiction is imperative to counteract the lack of access to quality treatment and the determination for an individual to desire treatment at all. This includes mediations regarding the general public, healthcare providers, employers, and groups within the criminal justice system.
Stigma in Healthcare and Encouraging Treatment
One very important step in destroying stigmas about addiction and encouraging individuals to seek out meaningful treatment includes addressing the role of healthcare systems in stigmatization. Many clinicians need to examine the language they use when providing care for people struggling with addiction. They also need to use their positions to advocate for better care of individuals who suffer from substance use disorders. This includes encouraging the formation of more compassionate and humane drug policies based on science and improving access to evidence-based approaches to addiction.
Substance Use and Government
A major upheaval of certain legislative policies is essential to address structural stigmas associated with substance use and addiction. Despite the growing evidence we have to support the notion that addiction is a disease, there has been an increase in stricter laws and penalties regarding criminal behavior related to substance abuse. The growing number of harsh criminal sentences linked to drug use only serves to magnify stigmas around addiction. Research conducted over the last twenty years suggests that there are many opportunities to implement new therapeutic strategies to treat addiction in the criminal justice system.
What is an Intervention?
Interventions to end the stigma around substance use disorders could include treatment in conjunction with legal supervision, therapeutic alternatives to incarceration, jail, and prison-based treatment programs, and support in the transition from incarceration back into the community. While simple drug education is a common benefit provided to jail inmates and prisoners, formal drug treatment is lacking. It is widely understood that punishment alone is ineffective and futile. The rising number of offenders struggling from addiction and substance abuse places a distinct focus on the urgency to integrate treatment programs in jail and prison populations.
Creating a Strong Support System
The involvement of friends and family in a person’s life plays a critical role in their decision to participate in treatment programs, as loved ones can provide a strong system of support and motivation for recovery. Another way to facilitate engagement in treatment is by providing individuals with easier access to things like drug and alcohol classes. Effective educational tools for the public are also useful. They can include utilizing mass media to share public service announcements or factual, science-based information on social media platforms. These types of informed messages are useful to dispel myths and counter the lack of knowledge about substance use disorders and treatment.
Indiana Center for Recovery and Addiction Treatment
At Indiana Center for Recovery, our ultimate goal is to confront and eliminate the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding addiction. We support the understanding of substance use disorders by providing the essential education that is needed to recognize the elements that influence addiction while offering you the tools you need to overcome it. Our center strongly advocates for recovery with compassionate, evidence-based treatment for addictions, including alcohol and opioid dependence. We can help you achieve sobriety by employing clinically proven best practices that will guide you in your path to recovery and fulfilling life.
Reclaim Life at Indiana Center for Recovery
Indiana Center for Recovery offers services such as inpatient detox and residential rehabilitation. You will be supervised by our advanced medical staff that provides expert care in our state-of-the-art facility. Intensive outpatient services are also available at our center. This type of maintenance is valuable for patients who don’t require 24-hour supervision but can still benefit from the same services and behavioral therapies in our residential treatment programs.
Contact us today at (844) 650-0064 to learn more about the services and treatments available at Indiana Center for Recovery.