Stigma: A Tragic Barrier to Addiction Recovery

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By definition, stigma means the mark of disgrace on a person. It also causes dangerous barriers that discourage people suffering from substance use disorder (SUD) to ask for help and sometimes to receive it. Put simply, the stigma of drug and alcohol addiction can kill.

Fighting Stigma in America

In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported a record 70,200 overdose deaths in the United States, making the disease of addiction more deadly than car accidents and gun violence. With more than 20 million people living with SUD and numbers rising year over year, an additional tens of thousands more people are dying from consequences of the misuse of drugs and alcohol. In fact, the number of people with SUD is similar to the number of people who suffer from diabetes, and more than 1.5 times the annual prevalence of all cancers combined (14 million).

Shockingly, only about 10 percent of people with a substance use disorder receive any type of specialty treatment. In other words, 90 percent of people living with an SUD never receive the help they need. The Office of the U.S. Surgeon General reports these numbers directly reflect the impact of societal stigma and a counterproductive, ineffective reliance on the criminal justice system to eradicate addiction, rather than medical intervention.

In addition, the Office of the Surgeon General of the United States’ 2016 landmark report on the country’s addiction epidemic was specifically aimed at erasing stigma and delivered defining effective actions that all facets of society can take to prevent and treat SUD.

Significantly, the Report pointedly established that addiction is not a moral failing or character flaw, rather “it is a chronic illness that we must approach with the same skill and compassion with which we approach heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.”

Furthermore, the findings are expansive, significant and full of hope for all those affected by this major public health challenge that must be recognized and included in the healthcare system, requiring clinical treatment and ongoing supportive care. A key piece of the Report provides considerable evidence showing that that high quality, accessible treatment programs, such as those provided by Valley Hope, can significantly reduce the effects of SUD on communities, workplaces, the health care system and families.

Words Matter

Although SUD is now clearly medically defined and accepted as a chronic brain disease that requires treatment, derogatory attitudes and perceptions of those afflicted continue to exist across society. The terminology and assumptions many still make about addiction double down on the guilt and shame the disease causes. That guilt and shame can escalate the desire to continue and even increase the misuse of drugs and alcohol.

“No physical or psychiatric condition is more associated with social disapproval and discrimination than substance dependence,” according to the Drug Policy Alliance. “Stigma is a major factor preventing individuals from seeking and completing addiction treatment.”

For instance, one way to combat stigma is to change the language and correct common misconceptions among the media, our communities and ourselves. Using medically appropriate terms like substance use disorder or SUD rather than drug abuse and treatment rather than rehab can help eradicate old terminology with destructive impacts. Banish words like junkie and crackhead from your vocabulary forever and speak up when you hear others use them. With roughly one in seven people in the United States (14.6 percent of the population) expected to develop a substance use disorder at some point in their lives, odds are someone suffering may be within earshot of the hurtful language. Choosing our words wisely and with intention is a simple way to contribute to the battle to erase stigma.

Treatment Works

Remember, addiction is a disease, not a moral failure. The stigma of addiction is a deadly perception preventing millions of people from seeking treatment for substance use disorder (SUD). Although addiction is a brain disease that requires treatment, the stigma fosters fear of reaching out for help, ultimately costing lives.

More than 25 million individuals with a previous substance use disorder are in remission and living healthy, productive lives. Eradicating stigma will help encourage those suffering to access effective treatment and exponentially grow the number of people living well in recovery.

Finally, at Valley Hope, we have witnessed the devastating toll that stigma and the disease of addiction has on people and families. However, we know that by embracing patients with compassion, treating them with proven therapies and empowering them with the tools to love themselves, they can learn to manage their illness, repair their relationships and reclaim their lives. Do not wait another moment, reach out today and begin your journey to sobriety. Call Valley Hope at 800.544.5101 or explore for more information about our treatment experience and admissions process.

Explore Valley Hope’s blog for extensive resources and information for loved ones, families and the recovery community.