The Shame and Stigma of Addiction

Posted on September 7, 2017 by Elizabeth Moyer

142 Americans die from a drug overdose every day.

Opioid addictions are claiming lives at an alarming rate – the death toll of September 11th terrorist attacks every three weeks.

Put another way, more people are dying from heroin than homicides.

Our country is in the midst of a crisis. It’s likely that someone you know is facing it, whether you realize it or not. Substance abuse and addiction are affecting millions of Americans, and the numbers continue to rise. The truth is, it’s not a recent phenomenon but has been on the rise for years.

Substance use disorders are often silent and invisible predators kept hidden from loved ones and society at large. But today, the national conversation around addiction has become louder and louder as states declare emergencies and individuals, groups, and policy makers are taking a stand. There are calls for more funding, more legislation, more resources, more support, and more awareness. However, none of these things will solve the addiction crisis if we don’t address one of the most painful, persistent, and pervasive drivers of addiction: the shame of stigma.

The Shame of Stigma

Stigma is a mark of disgrace. It’s a set of negative beliefs held against a person, issue, or circumstance, often founded upon assumptions, judgments, and preconceived notions rather than fact. More than a judgment or misconception, stigma has the power and influence to deeply cripple and discourage someone. What makes stigma so powerful is the shame behind the belief.

While guilt is a judgment of behavior and can motivate us to right a wrong, shame is a judgment of our person, our being, our character. It results in deep feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing because it’s a statement, not of something we have done, but who we are.

When it comes to addiction, the stigma often includes the underlying belief that those who abuse drugs and/or alcohol are weak or immoral. Stigma says that it’s a choice that individuals have taken, one they can control, and one that results from being morally inferior. More than a judgment of the behavior, the stigma around addiction casts judgment upon the person.

The nature of stigma perpetuates shame, shame is closely linked to fear, and the combination can be lethal.

The shame associated with addiction is not just painful; for many, it’s nearly unbearable. Feelings of unworthiness take root and fuel a belief that you’re not enough, that you’re not worthy of help or happiness. These feelings can prevent someone from asking for help, particularly if they continue internalizing false  messages that their problem is one  no one else cares about. Add to these feelings other life stressors, such as work, family, and finances, and the cycle of addiction becomes inescapable.

The Consequences of Stigma

What role does stigma play in the struggle with substance use disorders affecting millions of Americans? One is treatment. According to the recent Surgeon General’s Report on addiction, over 27 million Americans in 2015 were using illicit or prescription drugs. Of those 27 million, 20.8 million Americans met the diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder. Only 10 percent received treatment.

Many factors, such as availability, accessibility, and cost of treatment, may contribute to such a low rate of getting treatment. While it’s not a policy or price tag, stigma can have a significant impact on if, when, and how someone who needs treatment seeks it. When leading a life of sobriety means facing paralyzing stares, cutting remarks, and judgmental glances that only worsen the struggle within, many are less likely to engage in social relationships that could otherwise provide the emotional support necessary to stay sober.

The nature of addiction is seductive and secretive. It’s an illness that becomes a lifelong battle. Overcoming a substance use disorder can be the hardest obstacle one ever faces, and in the midst of it, they must give up what they love most during the most difficult time in their life.

Rather than reinforcing the social stigma that often goes unnamed, unaddressed, and ignored, we can stand up against the judgment and celebrate sobriety as an act of courage, strength, and resilience.

Reducing the Stigma of Addiction in America

The nature of social stigma is that it’s reinforced – or reduced – through our social relationships. We each have a role to play in shaping social stigma around substance use disorders. Rather than perpetuating the societal shame that is contributing to a national crisis, we can help reduce it by celebrating sobriety. Cultivating a supportive, safe environment for those overcoming a substance use disorder is key to creating a country where we celebrate the nearly unlimited potential of every human being – no matter what obstacles lie before them. Together, we can be the community that encourages others to pursue their potential, rather than hide their struggles.

Consider these ways you can make a difference in fighting the stigma of addiction.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION. Talk about one of the most threatening health crises facing our country. Engage others in conversation about problems related to substance abuse. Shedding light on the complexity of addiction can help reduce stigma, raise awareness, and combat misconceptions.

SHARE YOUR STORY. Addiction and substance abuse may hit close to home for you. Whether you’ve struggled with it or you’ve witnessed someone you love battle addiction, share your story. It takes courage and vulnerability, but out of sharing our story comes the healing power of human connection.

SUPPORT RECOVERY COMMUNITIES. Recovery communities are vital to helping individuals have a safe, stable, and supportive place to go when they need it most. Take an active role in supporting communities like The Phoenix that foster an environment where individuals can rise out of the depths of their disorder, recover, and live stronger than ever before.