Author: Justin Mckibben
Disease comes with stigma, there’s no denying that, no matter what brand of ‘unhealthy’ you have. It could be cancer, HIV, or Ebola and the idea of having a disease has always come coupled with a serious burden, which is the world passing judgment on those who suffer. Today mental health disorders, including addiction, carry what is sadly some of the worst stigma. It does not matter whether it is before, during, or after recovery, people who have struggled with addiction face it.
While there are a number of diseases that are stigmatized, mental health and addiction disorders typically carry the most severe prejudice and discrimination in the world today. Despite advances in our understanding of the biological groundwork of addiction as having elements of genetic predisposition, as well as advocacy for the past 80 years, the stigma against mental health and substance use disorders seems to only be getting worse.
Stigma against addicts exists because it is commonly believed that addiction is a choice. Because that makes the MOST sense out of every theory, right? People decide they want to grow up to be helplessly attached to something that eats away at their life, and their body, and pushes everyone and everything away from them. Who wouldn’t want that? The misconception about addictions choosing to have an addiction, and that they have control over their obsession is a cornerstone of the stigma. While it’s true no one is forcing addicts to drink or use drugs, there are fundamental changes in not only reward, but also executive control areas in the brain that make it hard to do what some consider a simple evaluation of the situation and chose differently.
How to erase the stigma of addiction
Even though people are beginning to believe that genetics play a relevant role in both mental health problems and addiction some believe that it is because we know more than ever about the biological underpinnings of addiction that people show less empathy. It’s not news that medical professionals stigmatize mentally ill, and especially, addicted patients. So how do we fight the stigma of addiction? Knowing that sometimes addicts ourselves can be some of our worse offenders.
4 Ways to Fight Stigma of Addiction
- Stop using stigmatized language
For those of us struggling with substance abuse, and for those of us recovering from a period of addiction, few things can be worse then trapping ourselves or one another in negative language and perpetuating stereotypes.
When we use words like ‘junkie’ or ‘drunk’ we are engraving those negative images in our own minds for ourselves, as well as re-enforcing that bad opinion in the minds of those on the outside looking in.
- Actively work on self-improvement
By trying to over-come our addictions and compulsive behaviors, we make great strides toward being a better example of what someone in recovery is, and what potential we have for improvement.
Working on yourself doesn’t just make your experience in sobriety more enjoyable and bring you more peace of mind to escape the stigma, but it helps raise the bar for those who have such low expectations of addicts or alcoholics, and it gives a light of leadership to those looking for change.
- Try to educate others on the disease of addiction
As a kid I remember a show that used to say all the time ‘because knowledge is power’ and it has always sat in the back of my mind. Growing in recovery helped me to understand the limitations, and how self-knowledge won’t fix everything, but knowing is half the battle.
Educating yourself and then others on exactly what is means to truly be an addict or an alcoholic, and letting people understand the disease in its entirety can show people a new perspective.
Respect for the disease can definitely change stigma in someone’s mind.
- Share your own story
One of the most powerful strengths that we have in the recovery community is our stories. Our stories are what connects us, what shows our individual path, and can be what drives us forward. Our stories can also be our most powerful tools for helping others.
Telling our stories, sharing our own experiences, and reaching out to help others not only defeats the stigma inside ourselves but it shows others that addicts and alcoholics come in many forms, from all different backgrounds and belief systems.
To prove that things like race, religion, social and economic class, even where you live and the way you dress do NOT make you an addict. And not every addict looks or lives like some would expect.
Stigma and stereotypes drive us apart in so many ways, and it holds too many people back from getting the help they need. Either because they have a false ideal of what an addict is and feel they don’t meet the criteria, or because they are afraid to admit that they suffer from the same disease that is so hideously dramatized in the media. In reality, the more we do to pull back this curtain of expectations, the sooner the world will understand how easily anyone can find themselves sick and suffering. Hopefully by then we will have more than enough resources to help.
For now, those of us who are lucky enough to over-come the stigma do what we can to help everyone we can. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135