Stigmas surrounding substance use disorder (SUD) and addiction have long presented inaccurate beliefs about addiction. Stigma also has prevented many who need help for their substance use from seeking treatment. However, as research and understanding grow, more and more people are slowly beginning to understand mental health and substance use disorders better.

Understanding SUD requires the ability to stop accepting stigmas as truth. Enough awareness to overcome stigma also depends on more individuals seeking help to get their voice heard by sharing their stories within their community. Let’s take a closer look at contributing factors to why stigma still exists in society and how to change the narrative.

Substance Use and Criminalization

Thievery, murder and assault are universally immoral, criminal acts. However, when anti-drug legislation acts got passed, it likely created the narrative that drugs and substances were also immoral and criminal. Therefore, the stigma formed that using drugs and substances is a criminal act, and individuals struggling with a substance use disorder are also somehow related to criminal behavior.

There is something that such beliefs have neglected to learn: while trying a drug or substance for the first time might be a choice, it is not as easy as choosing to do a drug for individuals struggling with a substance use disorder. Addiction  disorders the brain, and is influenced by genetic, environmental and developmental factors; without help, it is very difficult to manage. Even in recovery and after maintaining sobriety for some time, many individuals have had to face difficulties reintegrating into society, including:

  • Finding work
  • Getting certain licenses
  • Receiving benefits
  • Supporting a family

Some countries, such as Portugal, have decriminalized drugs and other substances. More recently, states within the United States have and are calling for reform to decriminalize drugs, such as Oregon. While there is more work to do, these attempts to decriminalize drug use, and instead provide resources to those who want help, have opened up more eyes and ears.

Relapse in Recovery

Those working through addiction and managing recovery are often judged by relapse rates, not necessarily relapsing themselves. Such judgment happens because those who ridicule fail to understand the complexities of the disorder. For example, other kinds of diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure have high relapse rates. However, society does not typically shame people for these diseases because they don’t see them the same way as addiction.

It is essential to draw comparisons between substance use disorder and other disorders to help society understand addiction as a behavioral health issue and act more appropriately to help someone struggling with a substance rather than judge them. It will also help prepare those who may have a loved one in need to better understand the signs of addiction and how to help.

Word Choice

So much of the vocabulary surrounding addiction is stigmatizing that it can be difficult to determine how to approach substance use disorders in conversation. It is not just using harsh words – such as addict, abuser or user – that negatively impact one’s motivation to seek help. There are many nuances to how language and word choice affects a person with a substance use disorder and their motivation to seek care.

Being able to separate the person from the disorder is essential to let them know that they are not their addiction. For example, saying things like, “They are bipolar” conveys that the person and their disorder are one and the same. However, saying, “They have bipolar disorder” makes the distinct separation between the individual and the disorder. Making these changes will contribute to shifting the belief of society and the individual with the disorder. Overall, acknowledging the individual and not their condition is a significant step toward reducing the stigma.

Reducing Stigma

It isn’t easy to reduce the stigma associated with addiction because authoritative sources, policy and the media have endorsed misconceptions and prejudice across many generations. However, such sources are beginning to adapt and become more inclusive and sensitive to people with all types of health conditions to find the help they need. A big way to help reduce stigma is by starting within the communities. The voices of treatment centers, paired with individuals in recovery, can effectively reduce stigma within a community and help change the perception of substance use disorders.

Stigma only creates shame and guilt, which can lead to isolation. Overcoming stigma, prejudice and discrimination is crucial to helping more individuals become motivated to get help to overcome addiction. If you are currently struggling to overcome your addiction, then the time to seek help is now. At New Hope Ranch in Manor, Texas, just outside of Austin, we provide a safe and comfortable space for individuals to learn, express themselves and ultimately live a life free of drugs and alcohol. For additional help about how to get started, reach out to New Hope Ranch today by calling (737) 600-8565