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The Stigma of Addiction

Stigma can be a significant barrier to overcoming substance misuse and substance use disorder (SUD), the diagnosis for addiction.1 Due to stigma, or negative attitudes and stereotypes, people with SUD can feel shame about their condition as well as shame about seeking help.2, 3

Learning about stigma and ways of reducing the stigma of addiction can help dismantle misconceptions and foster a society that better facilitates treatment for those struggling with substance misuse and SUD.

What Is the Stigma of Addiction?

Stigma refers to stereotyping and discrimination against a group of people based on distinguishing characteristics.2, 4 The stigma of addiction refers to the set of negative attitudes and beliefs that people with substance use disorder (SUD) may have about themselves, or that others may have about those struggling with addiction or substance misuse.3

These beliefs and attitudes can manifest through the language that people use to refer to those struggling with addiction, such as calling them addicts, alcoholics, or users, or by the way that they feel about people with SUD, such as displaying pity or maintaining social distance.4

Who Is at Risk for Developing an Addiction?

People who use drugs and alcohol are not guaranteed to develop an addiction, a chronic, yet treatable medical condition that involves compulsive substance use despite the negative consequences.5 Rather, addiction involves a complex interplay of a person’s brain circuits and genetics, as well as their environment and experiences.5

Understanding the risk factors for developing a substance use disorder (SUD) may help people gain insight into how this disease can develop and realize that it is not a moral failing or something to feel ashamed about.3 Although not everyone who experiences these risk factors will develop addiction, research has shown that certain risk factors can play a role, including:6

  • Having a genetic predisposition toward addiction, or having parents who engage in drug or alcohol misuse.
  • Prenatal exposure to alcohol or drugs.
  • Adverse childhood experiences, such as child abuse or maltreatment.
  • A lack of parental supervision in childhood.
  • Family dysfunction.
  • Neighborhood poverty and violence.
  • Experiencing racism.
  • Poverty and a lack of economic opportunity.
  • Unemployment.
  • Negative life events.

What Causes the Stigma of Addiction?

Although people with substance use disorder (SUD) have a diagnosable, valid medical condition, some people, and society as a whole, may still have outdated negative attitudes and beliefs about addiction because they don’t understand it and don’t know that it is a treatable condition.1, 4 People may not realize that addiction is a real disease caused by brain changes that people can have a predisposition to and that can be influenced by the above-mentioned risk factors that are beyond a person’s control.3

People with severe SUD can sometimes develop hostile behaviors, cheat, or lie as a result of their disorder, which can alienate others and further compound stigmatizing beliefs.3 Criminalization and language surrounding addiction can contribute to drug addiction stigma, and perpetuate the idea that people who use drugs are a danger to others and society as a whole.3 These factors can also marginalize groups of people who are already disadvantaged and perpetuate the cycle of stigma.3

Effects of Addiction Stigma

The stigma associated with addiction can be harmful because it can not only create barriers for those who want to seek help but can also worsen substance misuse and addiction.1 One study found that 10.4% of people who felt they needed substance use treatment but did not receive it in the past year said they did not seek treatment due to fear of stigmatizing attitudes in their communities.3 Additionally, people may increase their substance use as a way of coping with feelings of guilt and shame about their condition, or self-stigma.3

The stigma surrounding addiction can make people fearful of disclosing substance use, not only to friends or loved ones but to medical professionals who might otherwise be in a position to offer help.3 On the other hand, some medical professionals may hold stigmatizing beliefs, leading to poor quality of care.3 For example, one survey of primary care providers found that they generally understood opioid use disorder (OUD) but most had stigmatizing beliefs about it, which negatively impacted the care they offered.3

People can also have reduced access to certain medications that are necessary to overcome addiction due to stigma.3 Medications used to treat OUD, such as buprenorphine, must be taken regularly and may produce euphoria, so people may have the incorrect and stigmatizing belief that these medications are just replacing an illegal substance with another drug.3 People may also fear going to syringe exchange programs, which are intended to help people access substance use treatment and reduce health risks, due to fear and stigma from people in their lives, police, or other people in their communities.3

Reducing the Stigma of Addiction

Ending the stigma of addiction can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Stigma is often perpetuated by misunderstanding and outdated, incorrect beliefs.3 Some of the ways people can reduce or end stigma is through education about addiction, replacing stigmatizing language, and, on a societal level, ending systemic discrimination.3

Educate Yourself About Addiction

Learning more about addiction can be the first step in ending stigma. Understanding that addiction is a chronic, yet treatable medical condition may help people realize that addiction is not a moral failure or something to be ashamed of, but a valid disease that requires treatment, just like other chronic medical conditions.3 People with substance use disorder (SUD) should receive the same compassion and respect that is offered to people struggling with other diseases.3

Replace Stigmatizing Language

Changing the way people talk about addiction can play a significant role in ending the stigma surrounding addiction.3 Replacing stigmatizing terms with more accurate, empowering terms can help end the idea that a person is to blame or is the equivalent of their condition.3

People may not realize that certain terms are stigmatizing and should be avoided including:4

  • Addict.
  • User.
  • Drug abuser.
  • Junkie.
  • Alcoholic.
  • Drunk.
  • Former or reformed addict.

Using person-centered language that is more appropriate than the above terms can help end stigma. Terms to use can include:4

  • Person with a substance use disorder.
  • Person with an alcohol/opioid or other specific substance addiction.
  • Person in active use (e.g., “John Doe is in active use”).
  • Person who misuses alcohol.
  • Person in recovery or person who previously used drugs/alcohol.
  • Patient.

Finding Addiction Treatment

Finding treatment can help you feel empowered and allow you to take back control of your life. American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading provider of addiction treatment, with rehabs located across the U.S. We offer customized treatment programs that are tailored to the unique needs of each individual, including:

You can find effective addiction treatment in a variety of ways, such as by scheduling an appointment with your doctor or mental health practitioner and asking for referrals or calling rehab centers to inquire about their offerings. If you don’t have insurance, you can learn more about:

You can also use our rehab directories tool, which allows you to filter rehabs based on the type of care provided, location, and insurance, or call AAC at to speak to a caring and knowledgeable admissions navigator about your rehab options.

 

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