changing addiction stigma

Changing Addiction Stigma: Is It Time?

According to the scientific and healthcare communities, addiction is a disease. More specifically, it’s a chronic, progressive, and incurable brain disease, characterized by altered structure and functioning of the brain. When present, the disease of addiction causes individuals to compulsively pursue harmful and destructive behaviors despite the likelihood of negative outcomes and consequences. In effect, the disease of addiction forces individuals to act against their own best interests, which equates to individuals willfully sacrificing their physical and mental health, relationships, career opportunities and financial security, and potentially even their lives.

In recent years, rates of addiction have climbed to alarming highs. Ever since the OxyContin era in the 1990s, opioid abuse, and addiction has become a notorious public enemy. As such, lawmakers, law enforcement, and other public officials remain determined to implement a variety of strategies that will effectively curb the ever-present scourge of addiction on our society. Fighting addiction is a puzzle with many separate pieces.

However, one of the most important components of the current war against addiction is society’s need to be well-informed and knowledge on the nature of addiction and its treatment. Unfortunately, public opinion of addiction has remained incredibly low, resulting in the stigmatization and mistreatment of individuals who suffer from the disease of addiction. Therefore, the following will serve as a concise discussion concerning the low opinion that individuals often hold of those who suffer from addiction, how we can improve the overall awareness and perceptions of addiction, and the harmful effects that addiction stigmatization has on those in need of treatment.

Public Opinion of Addiction & Substance Abusers

Before the advent of opiate painkillers and the Reagan administration, addiction was only just becoming a hot topic of discussion. The disease hadn’t yet brought society to its knees, but addicts were becoming a more visible part of society and notorious for their exploits. At the time, addiction was very poorly understood, which perpetuated the public misunderstanding that addiction was an individual’s willful selfishness and the conscious decision to essentially be a bad person. As a result, substance abuse and addiction were largely criminalized with the majority of offenders being sentenced to prison for their crimes.

The idea was to punish these individuals for their substance abuse and force them into abstinence. However, many of the individuals who were sentenced to prison for substance abuse-related offenses would fall right back into their old behaviors within a short period following their release. This blatant irrationality was the first indication that this behavior may not be a rational individual’s conscious decision.

Over the years, researchers began to study substance abuse behavior intensively. We came to realize that although the onset of substance abuse behavior is a conscious decision, there comes a point in the tenure of every substance abuser’s deterioration that the behavior is no longer willful, but rather a compulsion. The evidence was the fact that individuals would continue to pursue alcohol and drugs despite knowing the inevitable negative effects on their health and social life as well as the very likelihood of legal repercussions.

In effect, substance abuse would begin to force individuals to act against their own self-interests. With more research, the disease model of addiction was born. Unfortunately, public perceptions of addiction and addicts never really changed to accommodate this change in the paradigm of substance abuse behavior. 

Gauging How Addiction Is Viewed by the Public

Getting an accurate picture of how society views the disease of addiction and those who suffer from it isn’t the easiest of tasks. The Johns Hopkins School of Public Health recently conducted a survey that was intended to offer a snapshot of public opinion of addiction and the results were very enlightening. According to the survey, the public tends to sympathize more with those who are perceived to be mentally ill than individuals who suffer from addiction. Interestingly, the survey indicated that individuals don’t see the mentally ill as being responsible for their own actions while viewing addicts as being, at least to an extent, responsible for their addictions.

In short, society as a whole tends to disagree with the consideration of addiction as a mental illness, with the inclusion of addiction as a treatable affliction under health insurance policies, and employment or housing policies that benefit addicts because they view individuals’ addictions as personal failings rather than their having developed a treatable disease.

The Johns Hopkins survey was administered to a sample of 709 participants from all points in the demographic spectrum who were considered representative of the American population. According to the results of the survey, only 22 percent of the respondents would be comfortable working in close proximity to an individual with a prior history of substance abuse and addiction while 62 percent would be comfortable working in close proximity to someone who was mentally unwell. Additionally, about 64 percent of respondents said that an employer should be able to disqualify an applicant with a history of addiction compared to only 25 percent who said the same about individuals with mental illness. The survey also indicated that 30 percent of respondents believe that recovery from either addiction or mental illness is impossible.

Why Is Addiction Stigma Harmful to Addicts?

Clearly, society as a whole still harbors a very bad opinion of individuals who suffer from addiction. Despite the prevalence of the disease model, most individual remain unconvinced that addiction is anything other than an individual’s conscious decision to be a selfish, self-serving substance abuse. The researchers who conducted the Johns Hopkins survey suggested that the majority of society must be basing their perceptions on the media portrayal of addictions, which is usually individuals who have become homeless or contracted diseases due to their substance abuse. In other words, the public seems to base their opinions on the stereotypical addict.

This is a major detriment and an injustice to addicts because, like society as a whole, they’re all different. While “rock bottom” might mean homelessness for one addict, it could be much less extreme for many others. The intensely negative public perceptions of addiction are incredibly harmful to individuals who suffer from substance abuse disorders because it discourages them from seeking the health they need for fear of being mistreated or discriminated against. Therefore, it’s essential that to increase public awareness of the true nature of addiction and the diversity among addicts, helping them to learn that addiction is truly a disease that makes them no more in control of their actions than someone with schizophrenia or psychosis. Even many states—such as New Jersey—have publicly verified that addiction is a disease, so hopefully with continued addiction education initiatives we will see a continued shift in this harmful public misconception.

Find Freedom in Recovery with Drug Treatment Center Finder

While there are many individuals who misunderstand the nature of addiction and the suffering involved in being an addict, there are also numerous individuals who have accepted the disease model and want addicts to receive the necessary help. If you or someone you love is suffering from addiction and would benefit from learning more about treatment, call Drug Treatment Center Finder at 1-855-619-8070 today. One of our recovery specialists can offer a free consultation and assessment to help you or your loved one begin the journey back to health, happiness, and fulfillment.