Stigma can be defined as an attempt to label a particular group of people as less worthy of respect than others. Stigma is a mark of shame, disgrace, or disapproval that results in discrimination. Stigma is about disrespect. It is because of stigma that so many people still view addiction as a character flaw or moral failing. Referring to individuals struggling with addiction as “meth heads,” “alcoholics,” “junkies,” “crack heads,” and “drunks,” only further perpetuates stigma.
Eliminating stigma associated with addiction is critical to ensuring that people seek the treatment they need. Lack of knowledge, fear of disclosure, rejection of friends, and discrimination are a few reasons why people with addiction are reluctant to seek help. Discrimination against people with addiction violates their rights and denies them opportunities. Despite basic civil rights laws, people with addiction often experience discrimination in the workplace, education, housing, and health care. Stigma leads to:
- Inadequate insurance coverage for addiction treatment services
- Fear, mistrust, and victimization against people living with addiction and their families
- Family and friends turning their backs on people with addiction
- Prejudice and discrimination
Although the stigma against people with addictions is so deeply rooted in society that it continues even in the face of strong scientific evidence that addiction is a chronic brain disease that can be treated, there are ways that you can help fight stigma and increase the public’s awareness or understanding of addiction. Public education for stigma reduction might be thought of as any activity that seeks to:
- Put the person before the disease, and use respectful language. Use phrases such as “a person with an alcohol use disorder.” Never use terms like “addict,” “drunk,” “alcoholic,” or “crack head,” and be sure to correct people who do use such derogatory language to describe individuals with addiction.
- Help people understand that people with addictions are still human beings, and that limitation is a normal and ordinary part of being human.
- In the workplace, provide professional development opportunities for staff regarding diversity, addiction, mental health issues, and fostering an inclusive work environment.
- Become an advocate. Be an active voice with both local and state legislators and politicians.
- Teach others about addiction and lift some of the social “taboos” against talking about addiction, treatment, and recovery. Create awareness by posting to your social media or writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, company newsletter, school newspaper, or other online publications.
- Speak out and challenge stigmatizing language, statements, images, humor, or stereotypes portrayed in the media and in movies and television.
- Take it upon yourself to inform your community about the facts of addiction. Help people recognize the reality and value of recovery. Provide accurate information about addiction in place of stigmatizing myths.
- Spread understanding that addiction is a chronic disease, similar to other medical conditions such diabetes, hypertension, or asthma.
Source: Healing the Stigma of Addiction: A Guide for Treatment Professionals (2nd ed.). Great Lakes Addiction Technology Transfer Center.