Woman feeling stigmatized while in substance abuse treatment

How Stigma Interferes With Substance Abuse Treatment

We all know about the supposed power of first impressions. Allow us to illustrate how this applies to substance abuse treatment.


Cut someone off in traffic only to sit across from them at a dinner party minutes later? That’s bound to be awkward. Show up to your first day on the job early, sharply dressed, and with a smile? You must be such a hard worker! 


Of course, we also know the fallibility of first impressions. They tell us nothing about the person underneath—their motives, struggles, character or potential. 


Stigma works in much the same way. 


When it comes to substance abuse treatment, stigma often labels a person unfairly and prolongs or even prevents a move toward recovery. It makes sense as drug use ranks globally as the top most-stigmatized health condition (alcohol use disorder comes in at number four). 


Today, we’ll take a look at what stigma gets wrong about addiction, how stigma delays access to addiction treatment and what you can do to help set things right. 


Stigma Deceives Everyone Involved

Stigma and science offer very different tales regarding addiction and substance abuse treatment. And unfortunately, in many circles, the message of stigma speaks louder and lasts longer. Why don’t we set the record straight?


What Stigma Tells Us

Stigma looks at a person who struggles with drug or alcohol use and says, “They chose this path.” Recovery Answers refers to it as “willful misconduct.” In other words, she knows what she’s doing is bad for her and society, but she wakes up every day and does it anyway. 


This thinking removes all context from the situation and all hope for the person. And it’s this perception—that she could choose a different lifestyle if she really wanted to—that makes addiction so much more stigmatized than other health problems with a participatory component


What Science Tells Us

Science considers years of study, research and review as it examines a person struggling with addiction. And then says, “They made unwise choices along the way, but they also likely endured a difficult upbringing, a mental health challenge or other personal setbacks that both initiated this disorder and encouraged it to continue.” 


This view acknowledges the whole of a person and her experiences. Science recognizes the very real environmental and genetic forces that contribute to addiction and the documented changes in the brain making getting sober extra complicated. 


Why The Message We Listen to Matters

If you or your loved one struggles with addiction, science serves to help people reach recovery. Stigma seeks only to cause harm. 


Sean Fogler, a doctor and former addicted individual, explains it this way, “[Stigma] tells us that we’re never safe and keeps us silent, hiding and alone, unvalued members of the human tribe. And that’s how many of us with this disease die: hopeless, spiritually empty, and alone.”


Stigma Slows Access to Substance Abuse Treatment

Of course, the primary way stigma causes harm to others is by delaying or preventing addiction treatment. Two of the big drivers to delay treatment are: 


The person himself responding to external and internal stigma

Despite proven plans for addiction treatment, tens of thousands of people die every year due to addiction, and stigma is largely to blame. After all, if a person believes they are responsible for their condition and unworthy of receiving help, they’re unlikely to feel comfortable asking for it. 


Healthcare workers who miss the opportunity to help

Studies show that doctors—yes, the people charged with doing good for others—show preference to people without signs of addiction over those with signs of addiction. Emergency rooms have even been found to remove patients in an obvious state of withdrawal when, of course, this is precisely when a person most needs medical help. 


Stigma Doesn’t Have to Define Your Addiction Treatment Story (or Anyone Else’s)

If you’d like to stop the message of stigma for good, you can do so with three key actions: 

  • Recognize the truth about addiction. Addiction doesn’t represent moral failure; it simply means a person needs help.
  • Remember that words are powerful. Think “substance use disorder” instead of “substance abuse” and include the word “treatable” when discussing addiction. 
  • Avoid labeling yourself or others. Sam is not an addict. He’s a loving dad who enjoys fishing, works at the local bank and needs help to manage his alcohol intake. 


Encourage others to join you in the effort—promoting science over stigma and lasting impressions over first impressions for the benefit of us all. 


If you or a loved one is living with an addiction, The Right Step Houston can help. Call us at 844.768.0169


By Stephanie Thomas

Contributing Writer with Promises Behavioral Health

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