Stigma is negative belief or form of disgrace, often rooted in misinformation. Whereas it is okay to be critical of things, if something is stigmatized it is usually unfairly or wrongly criticized, although this is not always the case. Etymologically, the word comes from disfiguration, particularly by a pointed object, and is present in English in reference to wounds of Christ, including the wounds of his crucifixion.
Beyond the religious connotations of being misjudged, stigma is very common in the topic of addiction. While science helps us navigate addiction from a more sympathetic and compassionate point of view, myths and misconceptions fuel a false understanding of what addiction is, particularly its relationship to choice.
To understand why addiction is often maligned, it is important to understand what it is, and what it is not.
What is Addiction and Why Does it Repulse People
Addiction is a mental health condition identified through compulsive and often self-destructive behavior that cannot be resisted alone. While it is often misunderstood as simply referring to excess, addiction does not just refer to an excessive behavior, but to behavior that has gone out of control, and cannot be properly curbed.
Because of its very nature, people who struggle with addiction need help to get it under control and move away from the disease, day by day, by giving their body and their brain time to heal. Although it starts with a choice, addiction itself takes away choice and creates a vicious cycle that takes courage and strength to break.
Even the idea of choice starting addiction is a questionable one. No one chooses addiction for what it truly is – instead, most people who become addicted engaged in their first experience with drugs while in an emotionally or cognitively vulnerable place. Teens are particularly prone to experimenting with drugs due to less inhibition, no risk assessment, and a lack of long-term thinking. Yet anyone can find themselves in a place where drugs may look like a good answer to their problems, at all ages and across all races, genders, and backgrounds.
The reason addiction often sparks stigma is because of a combination of stereotyping and common virtues. Consistency, responsibility, and discipline are virtuous, while people who lack these things are often seen negatively. Addiction warps a person’s behavior, their compulsion driving them to forget crucial details, lose track of time, and become inconsistent and destructive. Rather than recognize the disease causing all of this, we attribute these symptoms with faults in the person’s character. And thus, the idea is born that people who struggle with addiction are not sick, but just suffering the consequences of their own actions, and plagued by their own lack of virtue.
This stigma is internalized within many who recognize their behavior as addiction, which is why denial is a common way to cope with the realization that your habits have become harmful and compulsive. Accepting addiction means facing those stereotypes and falsehoods, and because of how prevalent they are, many question whether their behavior is really attributed to a mental illness, or part of who they are.
Addiction Treatment Works
This is an important point when addressing addiction in general and when addressing the widespread harm that stigma has caused in the treatment of addiction, both as an individual and as a societal problem.
Addiction treatment works. There are dozens of methods to help fight addiction, from incorporating exercise and a healthy diet into the life of a patient, to administering medicine to help them wean off their addiction and tackle powerful cravings and dangerous withdrawal symptoms. The kind of treatment a person needs depends on what they best respond to, based on their passions, physical and emotional needs, drug of choice, and medical history.
Perhaps the biggest issue with addiction today is that the treatments for addiction become more and more effective, yet only a fraction of people get help. Stigma is the barrier that prevents people from getting the help they need, even when they can afford it, out of fear of being labeled or perhaps because they want to deny their condition.
Addiction treatment is neither painful nor cruel. It can be and often is difficult, but the people who dedicate themselves to helping their patients overcome addiction always do so out of compassion and a love for their profession. Reputable clinics, sober living houses and treatment facilities exist all over the country, built to help individuals who are struggling with addiction in a way that changes their life.
Every individual goes through a very different and unique experience, but in every case, getting treated for addiction is no where near as grueling as the potential side effects and consequences of long-term addiction, including broken relationships, physical illness, and even loss of life. While treatment can at times be uncomfortable, and relapses are not uncommon – thus often leading to repeated treatment – the result is a life free from addiction.
A Noble Cause
On both an individual level and a societal level, the element of stigma is a big part of why addiction treatment fails to reach more people in this country – but changing that requires large amounts of time and effort.
Addiction is a disease individuals must struggle with – but on a larger scale, it can also be a problem society must tackle. Overarching every individual tragedy is the set of growing statistics, facts and numbers that tell the story of a nation that continues to aimlessly fight against a problem that brute force cannot solve.
The only way to tackle addiction properly is by addressing in each home and each neighborhood. Not with fear or hate or preaching, but with a better understanding of what addiction is, and how it can be treated. Communities must support treatment options and better healthcare, they must work to help make getting better a legitimate and attractive option for everyone who struggles with drug use and poverty.
If your treatment begins to show promise, and you feel yourself once again ready to live your life, then you owe it to yourself to live that life. But if you feel like helping others get better is part of that life, then you can do your part.
Join group meetings, help spread awareness, be an example that the stigma is wrong, and we need our communities to be open about their drug problems, to shine a light on them and help solve them. Public health interventions can go a long way to alleviate the pain and trauma that addiction is causing this nation, but for the individual, tackling problems at home and in the community will make a big difference.