Addressing the Stigma of Addiction

Dealing with stigma can be overwhelming. Stigma can take time to overcome. Be gentle with yourself and others throughout this recovery process.


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What is stigma addiction?

Stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular quality, person, or circumstance. When it comes to drug and alcohol addiction, stigma and self-Stigma Addiction accompany it.

Many people feel that addiction is a choice due to poor character judgment and not a disease. Stigma like this surrounds not only addiction but HIV, cancer, disabilities, and many other mental illnesses.

The shame of suffering from a substance use disorder or mental health illness and the stigma surrounding individuals struggling with addiction prevent seeking treatment, medical care, or medications to prevent opioid and alcohol use disorder deaths.

Beyond the shame individuals with a substance use disorder feel from society is the stigmatizing language they are subjected to constantly. Some examples of stigmatizing language are: Addict, Addiction, Alcoholic, Drug habit, Drug Abuser, Dirty, Clean, Reformed Addict or Alcoholic, Opioid Replacement, and many more. Preferred language is a person with a substance use disorder, substance use disorder, abstinent, actively using, regular substance use, a person who uses drugs, a person in recovery, medication-assisted treatment, etc.

Reducing the stigma in today’s society is challenging because it has existed for generations. However, many towns in New Jersey are committing to be Stigma-Free initiative. They educate their youth and residents on what it means to reduce the stigma so that individuals who need help can reach out and receive the support they need. As an individual, you can also reduce the stigma by treating individuals affected by addiction with respect, learning about various mental health conditions, and educating others who may have misconceptions about mental illness and substance use disorders. For more information on the stigma-reducing initiative, visit SAMHSA.

Unfortunately, the stigma with addiction also carries over into recovery from addiction. Many public policies related to housing, educational institutions, employment opportunities, voting rights, and insurance policies discriminate against individuals who have an addiction, even after establishing long-term recovery. This social stigma and discrimination make it harder for individuals to recover because they are constantly rejected due to their former substance use disorder or mental health illness.

Nowadays, some individuals choose to “recover out loud,” meaning they choose not to remain anonymous on their journey towards recovery, hoping to gain compassion over shame and stigma for others struggling with addiction in silence. These individuals hope that if others hear their struggles, experiences, and successes, it will guide them to do the same. Other individuals in recovery choose to remain anonymous and keep their recovery journey private. How someone decides to recover is a personal choice. Regardless of whether they choose to share their recovery or keep it a secret, they should be free from the stigma surrounding their substance use disorder.

Many people that struggle with substance use disorders also have an underlying mental health condition. Stigma surrounds mental health illnesses as well. The public often has a negative or derogatory attitude towards individuals suffering from mental health disorders. They take on the assumption that a person suffering from mental health illnesses is dangerous or a liability. Public stigma not only impacts the individual but their families and friends as well.

Stigma begins to overflow into self-stigma, where individuals begin to talk or think negatively about themselves. No one ever wants to feel like there is something wrong with them or different from their peers. Self-stigma also keeps individuals from seeking treatment due to the fear of being treated by others differently or losing their employment due to their mental health illness.

Dealing with stigma can be overwhelming. Stigma can take time to overcome. Be gentle with yourself and others throughout this recovery process.

Some helpful tips for coping with stigma include:

  • Seek Help: Don’t let the fear of others’ opinions prevents you from seeking treatment for mental health or substance use disorders.
  • Don’t Be Influenced by Others: Educate yourself and others about mental illness, substance use disorders, symptoms, and treatment options.
  • Reach Out: Mental illness and substance use can make you want to isolate yourself from your family and friends. Don’t go into hiding. Reach out to the people you trust and get the help and support you deserve.
  • Stay Connected: Join a support group to hear the experiences of others, help you deal with your feelings, and serve as a reminder to you that you are not alone.
  • Please Don’t Take It Personally:  The negative opinions of others usually stem from ignorance and are not targeted at you.
  • Mental Illness Does Not Define You: You are more than your mental illness or substance use disorder. While your disease might be part of you, you are more than your illness, and you matter.

There has also been a stigma surrounding harm reduction. Harm reduction was initially developed as a public health strategy for individuals with substance use problems for whom abstinence was not feasible. It has now evolved into a method of intervention to reduce the harm associated with drug use and drug policies. Some forms of harm reduction are syringe access, drug testing strips, supervised injection facilities, supervised consumption service centers, good samaritan laws, and access to naloxone. Harm reduction isn’t an easy topic of discussion for the general public. Once you suggest providing clean needle exchanges or safe-injection centers, people become outraged. However, harm reduction is an effective way for individuals to stay safe if they consume drugs or alcohol. If abstinence is initially too difficult for them to bear, then replacing daily heroin usage with the daily consumption of marijuana, their harm is reduced until they can develop alternate coping methods. Many support groups such as AA, NA, and CA are abstinence-based, 12 step approaches to help individuals maintain sobriety. Since recovery is a personal journey and no two individuals are alike, there is no right or wrong way to recover. Unfortunately, there is a stigma surrounding both approaches.

As substance abuse professionals and mental health providers, we are responsible for helping our clients reframe and overcome their internal shame, amplified and reinforced by public stigma. At Avatar Addiction Treatment Center in NJ, we make it our mission to eliminate the stigma of addiction everywhere we see it. Not only do our efforts benefit clients in our drug and alcohol treatment programs, but they also encourage more people amid active addiction to seek help. We are hopeful that with education and increased awareness, public perception and public policy will have a more positive outlook on addiction and recovery.

Avatar Residential Detox Center in NJ, offers several addiction treatment programs. Contact our 24-hour helpline at (973)-774-7222 and talk with one of our addiction specialists to learn more about detox and our addiction treatments, mental health options, residential rehab facilities, alcohol addiction center New Jersey, and how to afford addiction treatment. Discover your path to recovery today.

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