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The Stigmatization of Addiction

Many people believe that addiction is a moral problem and that people with substance abuse disorders choose to continue using drugs. Unlike people with other chronic health conditions, those in recovery from addiction are blamed for their problems. This stigma creates shame, guilt and fear, which prevents millions of people from getting the treatment they need to recover

Talking about substance use disorders and other mental health issues was once taboo. Many families were ashamed of a loved one with a mental health problem. Society was plagued with misconceptions about mental health conditions.

Today mental heath and substance abuse disorders, have become a part of the public conversation. But most people don’t treat people with mental health conditions the same way they treat people affected by other serious diseases. A large part of society still rejects the fact that addiction is a brain disease that can be medically treated.

It’s a surprising misconception, considering almost every family has a member affected by mental illness. Many people with mental health conditions have jobs and are productive members of society. However, the fear and guilt associated with substance use disorders continue to prevent many people from seeking treatment.

Though mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety have become less taboo, the sentiment hasn’t changed as dramatically for substance use disorders.

A 2014 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that society are more likely to have negative opinions of people with substance use disorders than they are of those with mental illnesses.

Of the 709 survey respondents:

· 62 percent would work with someone with a mental illness.

· 22 percent would work with someone with a substance use disorder.

· 64 percent believed employers should be able to deny employment to people affected by addiction.

· 25 percent believed employers should be able to deny employment to those affected by a mental illness.

Social support and social inclusion are leading contributors to a successful recovery from addiction. Conversely, the discrimination, isolation and prejudice caused by stigma are risk factors for substance abuse and relapse.

What Are the Effects of Stigma?

Stigma is one of the most formidable obstacles to an effective mental health system, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Misconceptions about substance abuse lead to major health care problems for individuals and society. Several studies have indicated that stigma is one of the main reasons people avoid treatment

Stigma may also make addiction worse. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research found that when people with substance use disorders perceived social rejection or discrimination, it increased their feelings of depression or anxiety.

Alternatively, people with co-occurring substance abuse and mood disorders perceived more negative attitudes against them.

Why Is Addiction Stigmatized?

There are several reasons why addiction is stigmatized. As with many health conditions throughout history, people feared what they didn’t understand. Not having full control of one’s mind can be scary.

As research and understanding grow, society seems to be slowly overcoming its fear of many mental health conditions. It doesn’t seem to be accepting truths about addiction as quickly, though. The reasons could stem from public policy and decades of anti-drug messages from the government.


Laws and the idea of criminal behavior were born from the idea that people who committed certain immoral acts should be punished. For example, thievery, murder and rape are almost universally considered immoral, criminal acts.

When countries began passing anti-drug legislation, they sent the message that using drugs was immoral. Soon, illicit drugs became associated with other forms of criminal activity such as violence, drug trafficking and prostitution. It’s easy to see how society associated drug use as a choice and as immoral behavior

Though trying a drug for the first time may be a choice for most people, compulsively abusing drugs despite negative consequences is not a choice for people with substance use disorders. Research indicates that the disease changes the brain, causing cravings and compulsive behavior.

Even when people recover from addiction or maintain long periods of sobriety, anti-drug laws make it difficult for them to reintegrate into society. It can be hard for people with drug convictions to find jobs, get licenses and support children. Thus, many of the things necessary to increase the chances of long-term recovery are difficult for them to obtain.


Substance use disorders are hard to understand. Many people consume substances of abuse but stop when faced with health, social or legal consequences. However, people with addiction are influenced by genetic, environmental and developmental factors. They are unable to stop without help.

Stopping seems like an easy solution, but it can be tough.

People in recovery are also judged by high rates of relapse because the public doesn’t understand the disease. Other chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, have high rates of relapse. But society doesn’t shame a person with high blood pressure for eating french fries or a person with diabetes for having an occasional candy bar.


So many words associated with addiction are stigmatizing that it can be difficult to determine how to refer to people with substance use disorders. But using stigmatizing language can prevent people who need treatment from seeking help.

Fighting back against the Stigma of Addiction

People report perceived stigma from healthcare providers, loved ones, and the general public. No matter the situation, no one likes to feel judged or devalued. In order to encourage people to reach out for help and get on the path to recovery, it is important to reduce the stigma surrounding their situation. Educational programs and modeling of non-stigmatizing behavior can help people provide nonjudgmental, empathetic support.

Effective Ways to reduce thee stigmatization of addiction:

- Offering compassionate support.Displaying kindness to people in vulnerable situations.

- Listening while withholding judgment.

- Seeing a person for who they are, not what drugs they use.

- Doing your research; learning about drug dependency and how it works.

- Treating people with drug dependency with dignity and respect.

- Avoiding hurtful labels.

- Replacing negative attitudes with evidence-based facts.

- Speaking up when you see someone mistreated because of their drug use.

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