Breaking the Stigma around Addiction

Jason Sheirs
Author / Jason Shiers / Dip. Psych MBACP
a man in a therapy

How can we break the Stigma around Addiction?

The hardest start towards sobriety is the first step. Taking that first step into the unknown, letting go of the thoughts, the substances, the places, and the people holding you hostage. Now is the time where it is important to replace the story of who you are with new ones of who you want to become.

The first step is admitting to yourself that you have a substance use disorder, you may have heard that this is the hardest step, but facing other people in your life and admitting it to them can feel like taking a dark secret into the light. There is such an inherent stigma about mental health issues and addiction that runs deep in our society, making it extremely hard to admit failings to ourselves and others.

Along with battling stigma, negative attitudes, and beliefs from family, friends, and their community, persons with substance use disorders also face prejudice from the medical community when seeking help for ailments brought on by their addiction.

What is causing the stigma around addiction?

Addiction has long been criminalised in western countries, creating a harmful societal view of the person with a substance use disorder. The treat of jail, punishment, and condemnation often leave persons with addiction to metaphorically hide in the shadows. (Breaking the Stigma of Addiction: Several aspects of the community comes to mind about breaking the stigma of addiction)
This treatment has come from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of addiction, but new medical research is now changing that viewpoint so that society as a whole can understand that addiction and mental health needs are like any other disease and requires the same love, compassion, and support from family and the community as a person fighting cancer do.

Why do people feel afraid to talk about addiction?

There are 5 core prejudice items where addiction and mental health are concerned:

  1. Trust issues within the immediate family
  2. The potential for contact with a vulnerable group such as children
  3. The risk of self-harm
  4. The belief that mental illness and addiction are not compatible with authority – bringing in a criminal element
  5. And not knowing how to interact with a person with mental illness or addiction. (Understanding Stigma of Mental and Substance Use Disorders)

There are unfortunately other examples of how stigma is perpetuated:

  • Media depictions where the villain has a mental illness and depict people with mental illness as violent and dangerous
  • Harmful stereotypes of people with mental illness
  • Treating mental health issues as if they are something people can overcome if they just “try harder” or “snap out of it”
  • Using phrases like “she’s crazy” or “he’s nuts” to describe other people or their behaviour,
  • Lack of confidentiality or empathy in the workplace
  • Celebrations of young adults reaching their ‘drinking’ age by getting them drunk

a man in a therapy

How can we talk to people about addiction?

Many rehabilitation treatment centres and support groups publish inspiring stories about clients that have overcome addiction and are in recovery, some forums invite people in recovery to share their stories so that they and those reading them know that no matter how isolating addiction may seem, there is hope.

Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and more recently TikTok have real-life people, not just celebrities, sharing their journeys and more conversations are going on right now about mental health issues and addiction than ever before.

Why it’s important to talk about addiction?

These conversations are really important as they break down the walls between society and people with substance use disorders and mental health issues. Since a key factor in addiction is pre-existing (often undiagnosed) mental health problems, trauma, or even PTSD, having the stigma surrounding them dissolve will encourage people to seek help from trained medical practitioners, therapists, counsellors, and treatment centres before its too late.

Reducing stigma can positively impact several areas, including:

Ultimately, the best way to change public perception is to bring the conversation into the open, putting real names to the ‘low-life’ label previously used, talking about addiction and mental health issues openly will hopefully create a safe space for people to seek help for themselves and their loved ones without shame, guilt, and blame. (LOWLIFE)