Addiction is a problem that isn’t going away. More than 72,000 American citizens died due to drug overdoses in 2017 alone, more than double the rate in 2007, and the opioid crisis is probably going to get worse before it gets better.
There are many ways to mitigate the damage from the opioid epidemic, including restricting prescription pain medications and providing better care for recovering addicts, but as long as drugs remain in circulation, addiction is going to be a problem. If we’re going to deal with that problem in a healthy way, and in a way that encourages recovery, we need to destigmatize addiction.
Why Addiction Stigma Is Damaging
Most of us have internal prejudices that make us prematurely judge addicts. When we hear the term “addict,” we have an image in our mind; we see people who have no self-control, or people who made poor life decisions, or people who otherwise aren’t worthy of help.
This is a destructive mentality for many reasons:
- It doesn’t acknowledge the power of addiction. Addiction isn’t just a desire to take more drugs; it’s a neurobiological condition that, by itself, is overwhelmingly popular. People who take an addictive substance once or twice may not feel the effects of addiction right away, but after a few rounds, may find themselves with a compulsive urge to continue using. It distorts how they think, and what they feel in a way that’s inaccessible to the average sober person. Accordingly, the stigma of addiction leads to misconceptions about what addition is.
- It discourages people from asking for help. Many addicts want help because of the shame they already feel. They know using illegal substances is “bad,” and understand that society frowns upon them. They’d rather try to deal with their habit in secret than admit they need help and support; ultimately, this forces them to continue the habit.
- It limits sympathy and support options. When we treat addiction as something inherently immoral or “wrong,” we limit our own capacity for sympathy. We see addicts as people inferior to us, and because of that, we don’t treat them the same way we’d treat someone else with an equally challenging problem. It also forces some organizations to operate outside the public eye, to avoid criticism for helping addicts recover.
- It encourages recidivism. When you feel your addiction is unfairly characterized, or that you aren’t being treated like a human being, the only people who understand you are people also struggling with addiction. But when you engage with those social circles repeatedly, you’re exposed to more opportunities to use drugs. The stigma of addiction, therefore, passively encourages further addiction.
How to Destigmatize Addiction
So what can we do as a society to destigmatize addiction?
- Educate yourself. First, take the time to educate yourself about the nature of addiction, and how different drugs affect people. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is a fantastic resource for this. The more you understand about how addiction affects the brain, and the root causes of addiction, the more sympathy you’ll have for people going through the recovery process—and the more you’ll be able to help.
- Educate others. Listen for inaccuracies, insults, or shaming language used by the people around you, and gently correct them when you feel it’s appropriate to do so. If you hear someone say that addicts are responsible for their own misery, you can point out the socioeconomic disparities, underlying mental illnesses, and childhood traumas that are frequently associated with addictions, or explain how addiction affects the brain. Don’t be confrontational here; instead, offer another side of the story.
- Be non-judgmental. As much as possible, listen to people and talk to them in a non-judgmental way. When you provide universal, unconditional sympathy for other people, you’ll be seen as approachable, and people will be more likely to come to you for help when they feel ashamed or looked down upon.
- Watch your words. Think about the words you use, and how those words can impact public perceptions of addiction. For example, the term “drug abuse” is negatively charged, since it implies the person doing it is willingly engaging in a destructive act. “Substance use” eliminates much of the negativity here, while indicating the same meaning. Similarly, calling someone an “addict” forcibly categorizes them into a group of people cast off from society, while saying they’re a person “struggling with addiction” humanizes them.
Addiction stigma is, unfortunately, only making our addiction epidemic worse. We owe it to our friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers to actively participate in rebuilding a culture that encourages the destigmatization of addiction—and supports more people in their efforts to become (and stay) sober.