As I make my way to work my route takes me past a coffee shop titled, Coffee Addicts. I feel quite perplexed by this. I check in with myself, ‘Does this feel okay? Is it appropriate?’
I feel torn as when I complete my journey and arrive at work, I am working with clients whose substance use disorders have destroyed their lives, home, relationships and careers. It feels offensive to my clients that the term addicts can be used as casually and monetarily. Drawing from optimism, I wonder whether there are any benefits to using the term addicts as casually. Could this dispel some of the stigma my clients feel in their recovery? To ‘normalize’ and bring their experience into mainstream world. An opportunity for narratives around addiction to be included more in populist realms?
I feel stuck again, the term ‘addicts’ feels derogative whilst even the very act of ‘normalizing’, feels as if it reduces and minimizes our clients’ challenging and unique experience. I am quickly reminded; it is important to be critical and conscious when it comes to language. As a society we must demonstrate an understanding around the seriousness of what it means to be in active addiction and the language that surrounds this.
Especially when our choice of language can prevent clients from accessing help.
Several studies have indicated that stigma is one of the main reasons people avoid treatment. A study carried out in 2007 by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that 37 percent of college students avoided seeking help due to feared social stigma.
In fact, Stigma also worsens our clients’ process. A study published in the Journal of Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research (2014) found that when people with substance use disorders perceived social rejection or discrimination, it increased their feelings of depression or anxiety. People with co-occurring substance abuse and mood disorders perceived more negative attitudes against them.
This allows us to deduce that stigma can impact recovery. Understanding stigma and recovery conceptually are integral for sobriety. Recovery gives opportunities, empowers individuals, gives purpose and meaning to their lives and leads to social inclusion whilst stigma on the other hand reduces opportunities, reduces self-esteem, efficacy, belief in one’s abilities and contributes to social exclusion through discrimination.
Conceptually we understand that stigma can impact recovery, but to equally assume it would be possible for a world free of exclusions and stigma can exist would be ignorant. This is not to be confused with encouraging passivity around language that can be casually appropriating a disease for coffee profit margins. On the contrary it is a reminder that we live in a society that will intrinsically differentiate, exclude and essentially normalize prejudice. It is not a coincidence that addiction to drugs and alcohol remains a prevalent feature of life in many disadvantaged neighborhoods. Groups that that are typically, I would assert forced, into welfare dependency, criminal activity and incarceration.
Coming back to my drive, I now feel less perplexed about my feelings towards the ‘Coffee Addicts’ sign. Although it is a disappointing reminder of our society’s systemic problems, I feel perhaps it was a much-needed reminder. I am reminded of the responsibility we all hold in society. Substance use disorder is a social justice issue. The sign’s casual demeanor trivializes, glamourizes and appropriates a very serious issue.
Drug use alone is responsible for over 11.8 million deaths a year. In accordance to the World Drug Report (2019) about 35 million people worldwide suffer from substance use disorders, and only 1 in 17 of those will receive treatment. This is not to confirm that all have secured recovery.
Encouraging and supporting more clients to access treatment, and thus have a better chance at recovery must start with us and our abilities to challenge systems that perpetuates and normalizes stigma. Even if it means something as simple as not stopping for coffee at an establishment under the name, ‘Coffee Addicts’.
Salam Programme Director, The Cabin
George is a British Arab psychotherapist. He has worked privately, within the NHS and charity sector. George's interests lie in working psychodynamically with marginalised...