Many of those suffering from substance use disorders are faced with an unfair social phenomenon that stands in the way of getting help - stigma. The stigma surrounding addiction and rehab is unnecessary, and doesn’t help anybody. Long before the disease model of addiction came about, it was generally believed that people with addictions were making wrong choices out of poor morals, and attitudes toward addiction were punitive. Incarceration in a prison or asylum was common for addicts, under the assumption that the issue could be fixed with abstinence and fear of repeat incarceration. Nowadays, attitudes toward addiction have shifted (though not entirely - many people still view addiction is a poor moral choice and look down upon those suffering.) It is generally believed that addiction is a disease, although even that perspective is changing in recent times.

The disease model of addiction has no doubt been of great benefit in opening up an avenue of access to professional healthcare for those suffering, and has somewhat reduced the stigma around addiction. The disease model itself, though helpful, does take away from the addict a sense of agency, so that they are perceived as helpless in the face of their problem. Recent research on neuroplasticity[1] suggests that addiction comes about as a result of the brain’s rewiring. Use of cocaine, for example, will cause a release of dopamine in the brain. Repeated use will train the brain to crave cocaine in order to repeat the release. The brain’s circuits wire together and the habit is formed. This neuroplastic outlook on addiction and the brain returns to the addict a sense of agency. If the brain can be conditioned to act in a certain way, it can be reconditioned to make alternative choices.

The road to recovery is long and difficult, and facing stigma does not help one bit on that journey. It is, in fact, a great hindrance. In order to recover, you must first admit that you have a problem. This first step is often the most difficult, but it is made even harder by the stigma that comes with it.

Below are just some of the negative consequences of stigma.

Stigma can make people feel like a stereotype. It becomes quite clear to an addict when stigmatised that those who do so do not understand or even want to know them. This isolation from society is harmful and can lead to depression, and relapse.

The feeling of being misunderstood hurts, and can often reshape into anger. Anger, in turn, can sometimes result in destructive behaviour, which further reinforces some of the stigma around addiction and recovery.

Shame is a common feeling in those who are stigmatised. It is different from guilt in that it does not concern wrongful and hurtful actions, but one’s identity or sense of self. The stigma can leave an addict feeling unworthy of love and care. People in recovery understand that guilt must be felt and acknowledged, but shame does not help anybody and only serves to further isolate the individual from others.

Hesitancy to Get Help
This is the most dangerous and harmful consequence of stigma. The stigma surrounding addiction and recovery makes individuals who are suffering hesitant to even admit they have a problem. Fear of judgement and shame keeps people from getting the help they need.

Recognising Stigma

It is possible that we all have, at one time or another, contributed to the stigma of addiction of recovery. One of the most common ways that stigma rears its head in society is through the terminology that is too often used by people referring to those in recovery. Terms like ‘junkie’ and ‘crackhead’ are thrown around carelessly. These terms perpetuate the idea that a person is defined by their addiction, which is simply not true. These derogatory terms shift one’s perspective away from the fact that addiction is a struggle, and should be recognised as such.

Fighting Stigma

Those suffering from addiction are in a position to report from the inside. They are on the receiving end of stigma and know just how hurtful it can be. Those suffering from addiction and in recovery, can, and do, use their voices to share how it is. However, we all need to be mindful of our words and language surrounding the issue, even those who are in recovery themselves are culpable of using derogatory terms to illustrate addiction and addicts.

In order to reduce stigma, we all need to do our best to abstain from judgement, and try to be empathetic. Understand that addiction can happen to anyone, regardless of life circumstances, and that people who are suffering deserve to be treated with as much kindness and compassion as anyone else.

Education is the best prevention for stigma. If we are able to educate society and ourselves on the nature of addiction we will begin to see that education and awareness allow us to move away from ignorance and toward a place of understanding. Stigma and prejudice is often born out of ignorance, so everything we can do to help and educate has value.