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Addiction – Why the Stigma?

Addiction is a devastating disease in many ways, but one of the most devastating side effects is the stigma associated with it. Stigma is defined as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” So often, those suffering from addiction feel shame and a sense of failure for struggling, which prevents many people from getting the lifesaving help that they need. In fact, only 1 in 10 people actually seek treatment for a substance use disorder[1]. Could you imagine if those statistics were true for cancer patients?! What if only 10% of those diagnosed with cancer sought help? There would be much more needless suffering and loss as a result. Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening with addiction. Think of how many more lives would be saved and families preserved if every person struggling with addiction felt empowered to seek treatment! We can improve these outcomes by addressing a primary factor that is keeping people from getting well – stigma.

Let’s first take a look at why addiction is so often stigmatized. One reason, quite simply, is ignorance of the facts. While the science of addiction is clear, not everyone understands that addiction is in fact a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences[2]. Simply, the chemicals in the brain are affected in an adverse way, which impacts one’s ability to just stop at any time. Therefore, viewing recovery as a “mind over matter” issue fundamentally goes against the science of addiction and is a harmful shame message sent to those struggling with the disease.

Another reason that addiction is stigmatized is because the symptoms of alcohol and drug addiction, such as impaired judgment, erratic behavior, etc., can result in negative consequences, such as legal, occupational, and relationship problems. This often confuses, frustrates, and even angers those around the person with addiction, which translates to shame felt by the addicts themselves. Social worker and shame researcher, Brene Brown, describes shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

Unfortunately, the stigma of addiction – viewing it as a moral failing or character flaw rather than a brain disease – casts shame on to the person struggling with addiction, in turn contributing to a major public health crisis (drug overdose is now the #1 cause of accidental death in the United States)[3]. In fact, substance use disorder is the #1 most socially-disapproved-of medical condition that exists[4]. So, understandably, when individuals face discrimination and social disapproval for their illness, they are far less likely to get help. So many people hide their addictions for fear of being judged and outcasted rather than loved and supported.

Understanding this vicious stigma and shame cycle is the first step in addressing and reshaping the public perception of addiction. We can all do our part to better treat those who struggle with this disease by remembering that recovery IS possible and celebrating our loved ones when they make the brave choice to seek help. Our next blog will focus on simple steps we can all take to reduce stigma and empower those who struggle to take the first step towards recovery.

[1] CASAColumbia. Addiction medicine: closing the gap between science and practice. 2012.

[2] National Institute on Drug Abuse. The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction: The Basics.

[3] Fox, Maggie. “Drug Overdoses Spur Rise in Accidental Deaths, Says Report.” NBC News, 19 June 2015.

[4] Goffman, E. “Stigma: Notes on the management of a spoiled identity.” Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963.

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