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Stigma and Addiction

Updated: Jan 31, 2020

What is stigma?

Facing and overcoming stigma is one of the major challenges for those who have addiction. Stigma is a discrediting negative attitude imposed by society on individuals for not being perceived as “normal”. Stigma evolves as a result of society’s fear, ignorance and prejudice towards people who go through different life circumstances that the majority of the population does not go through. Stigma arises as a result of the society identifying the members of the smaller group which they perceive as less powerful and identify as “other”.

Different types of stigma

Individuals who use substances or in recovery face different types of stigma including enacted stigma, perceived stigma and self-stigma. Enacted stigma is the social discrimination experienced by the individual that may limit individual’s access to social services such as difficulty finding a job, difficulty obtaining housing and interpersonal rejection. Perceived stigma is the perception of the stigmatized individual or group about the stigmatizing attitudes of the society directed to them. Self-stigma is the individual’s feelings, thoughts and behaviors hat arise from being identified with the stigmatized group. For example an individual may feel shame, fear and as a result may avoid treatment, might fail to seek employment and may isolate themselves and avoid contact with others.

Stigma and Labeling

In order to understand stigma, it is important to understand the labeling theory. Labeling negatively impact an individual’s self-concept which is everything that one knows and thinks about oneself. Self-esteem and self-efficacy (a person’s subjective feeling of competence) are aspects that could be negatively impacted by labeling. In 1966, in his book “Being Mentally Ill”, Scheff originated the labeling theory by proposing that being labeled mentally ill causes one to be mentally ill. The idea is that cultural stereotypes are internalized by people and create their self-concept which is everything one knows and thinks about oneself, as mentioned above. The person who is labeled acts out these role expectations and tends to internalize their role in time.

Why do people stigmatize addiction?

People dealing with substance and alcohol addiction are one of the most stigmatized population group throughout the world. In a study that was conducted with 150 subjects, following reasons were suggested as the reasons for stigmatizing people dealing with addiction: fear of contracting the condition, belief that the affected people are to blame for their addiction, belief that people with addiction have low moral character, belief that addiction is not treatable and lastly the belief that was found to be the main factor accounting for stigma toward people with addiction: belief that people dealing with addiction pose an active danger to society.

People continue stigmatizing addiction because they see addiction as a character deficit or weakness that cannot be cured. Despite scientific evidence that addiction is a treatable disease, stigma against people with addictions still continues. Stigma involves unconscious fear by the society that stems from lack of education. Since the majority of our population is not educated about addiction, individuals don’t know how to deal with this condition and the lack of knowledge leads to fear.

How does stigma impact people with addiction?

The most important impact of stigma on individuals dealing with addiction is internalization. In time, individuals and families who are dealing with addiction start believing that addiction is their fault and they believe that they are weak which leads to feelings of shame. In time, the feelings of shame grows and turns into embarrassment. The person who has addiction hesitates letting people around them about their condition. Some family members have a hard time opening up to their families about their problem fearing the criticism and negative reaction. As a result, families and individuals tend to hide their condition and they fear that if they don’t hide their problem, they might lose their job, social support, friends,insurance or even children.

Stigma causes discrimination by the society. As a result, people with addiction tend to isolate themselves because they feel like they won’t be able to benefit from the opportunities that “normal” people do. This makes people with addiction reluctant to seek help and as a result, their recovers gets slower and harder. In time, people lose their jobs, families, homes.

How can we fight stigma?

The most important factor in reducing stigma associated with addiction is education and awareness. For people with addiction, it is important to accept that addiction is an illness, it is not the individual’s fault and recovery is possible. It is very important for people dealing with addiction to get treatment and not letting the fear of being stigmatized overweigh the opportunity to get help.

Stigma stems from other people’s judgements that stems from their lack of understanding of addiction. It is important for individuals who are dealing with addiction not to let other people’s lack of information impact their recovery. It can be very destructive to feel shame and humiliation because of something you cannot control.

If you or a loved one is dealing with addiction, it is important to know that people are not defined by their illness. An individual with addiction is more than his/her addiction. Addiction is the a condition that they are dealing with, not their identity.

In order to decrease society’s lack of information about addiction, it is important to speak out, get in touch with media and advocacy groups. It is important to protest stories, movies, shows that stigmatize addiction. Giving public talks or writing about addiction is another way to educate the society about addiction in order to help decrease stigmatization.

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