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Stigma Around Addiction: What It Is and How It Started

Chemical dependency can be defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease–one that is characterized by a compulsive need to seek and use a substance.

While treatment professionals and some members of the general population see substance misuse and addiction this way, certain members of society unfortunately view addiction differently: as a moral and character failing.

The History of Addiction Stigma

So where did this deeply embedded negative viewpoint on drug and alcohol addiction come from? According to the Great Lakes Addiction Technology Transfer Center, this detrimental stance on substance misuse can be traced all the way back to the early 1800’s.

A few of the significant markers in the history of addiction stigma include:

  • People addicted to opiates in the 1800s were almost exclusively characterized in the press as people of color, including African Americans and Chinese immigrants, even though a large segment of white middle- and upper-class women were addicted, as well.
  • In the early 1900s, those who were addicted to alcohol were described as “moral inferiors.” Their children were even labeled as “born criminals” with no ability to determine right from wrong.
  • In 1914, the Harrison Anti-Narcotic Act was passed and aggressively enforced. This not only criminalized those who were addicted to drugs and alcohol, as well as treating physicians, but also many existing treatment methods.
  • In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, many therapeutic communities established to treat substance misuse required applicants to sit quietly for hours before their intake interviews. And in those interviews, applicants were required to admit they were “stupid.”
  • Due to “zero-tolerance” policies, such as the War on Drugs in the 1970s, society’s focus shifted from treatment to criminalization as a “solution” to chemical dependency. As a result, incarceration rates (as well as substance misuse rates) skyrocketed in recent decades.

Breaking the Stigma Around Addiction

Even today, in spite of the evidence proving chemical dependency is a chronic disease, the shame surrounding substance misuse remains very prevalent. This way of thinking is harmful because it feeds into the vicious cycle of addiction and discourages people from seeking treatment. Individuals battling substance misuse issues constantly confront stigma-based roadblocks, whether it’s seeking employment, housing, or health insurance.

The good news is, we can all play a part in chipping away at the negative stigma around addiction. Here’s how:

  • Get Help: Drug and alcohol misuse perpetuates the stereotypes associated with addiction. Seeking treatment and being transparent throughout the recovery process can help others understand the true nature of chemical dependency, rather than the version they’ve created in their minds.
  • Share Your Story: When you’re open and honest about your struggles, you connect with people on a deeper level. Others can then see you as a human being, and not just a cliché.
  • Do Your Research: Learn everything you can about the disease process of drug and alcohol addiction. By fully understanding substance use disorders, you can educate others, which enables them to see someone with a substance misuse problem as a person worthy of compassion.

Start on the Journey to Recovery

If you want to take the first step toward recovery, you can learn more by calling our admissions navigators, who can guide you through the admissions process and help you learn more about your rehab and payment options.

You can also search the treatment directory to find rehab facilities across the country and verify your health insurance coverage if you want to learn about what may be covered on your plan.

When you’re ready to start your journey to recovery, contact American Addiction Centers to get started with the recovery process. Call .

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