When someone struggles with addiction, the most dangerous part is not the addiction itself but rather the stigma attached to it. When someone is labeled a “stoner” or a “junkie,” it should not be a surprise that the drug abuse often continues. Some people in society believe that those with a substance use disorder have a character flaw or show signs of weakness. The belief is that an individual with alcoholism can simply stop drinking at any moment. Stigma also says that the individual who struggles with heroin abuse just wants to stay unemployed and spend all of his or her time getting high. Sadly, this kind of thinking is simply not true, and these misconceptions not only lead to false beliefs about addiction, but also prevent individuals from seeking the help they need.
While few people hold feelings of hostility toward an individual battling a chronic disease, such as diabetes, individuals often have a negative perception of someone who struggles with drug addiction. A study by Johns Hopkins University shows that 62 percent of individuals surveyed would be willing to work closely with someone with mental illness compared to only 22 percent of individuals willing to work with someone with a drug problem.1 The truth is that, in many cases, mental health issues can be found at the root of, or co-occurring with, substance abuse.
Why The Stigma Is Dangerous
Societal stigmas about addiction are dangerous because instead of seeking help, an individual often feels worse about his or her condition, which drives them to hide it even more. The stigma surrounding addiction often leads to depression, isolation and more drug abuse. As a result, less than 10 percent of individuals with substance abuse problems seek help.2
In many cases, this cycle of shame and secrecy can lead to a drug overdose. As the individual’s body adapts to drug abuse, he or she develops a tolerance to the drug. Eventually, a higher drug dosage is required to achieve the same effect. When drug use stops, if the individual uses the same amount as before, he or she is more likely to have a drug overdose. The body simply does not know how to process the large amount of drugs and serious health issues may arise.
Who Is Helping To Break The Stigma
Thankfully, countless people and organizations are working together to remove the stigmas around addiction. One of the most important tasks is to add clarity to the definition of addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.3 It is not a character flaw; it is a medical condition.
The US government has taken decisive steps to help people who struggle with addiction to move forward. In 2010, the Affordable Care Act was put into place. This law states that substance abuse services must be covered by insurance plans in the US. As a result, all insurance plans must cover substance abuse treatment.4 This law made access to treatment a possibility for individuals struggling with addiction. While the amount of treatment covered varies from one insurance policy to another, this is an important step in allowing individuals to find treatment.
How to Break The Stigma Today
Sadly, in many cases, an individual will often face a crisis or health issue before he or she seeks professional treatment. Whenever this happens, the problem is often well-advanced. The best way to avoid these challenges is to change the way we talk about addiction, taking every opportunity to reduce shame and guilt.5 Open communication is often the best way to tear down these barriers, creating solid relationships with honesty and trust. Once this high level of trust is established, individuals are much more likely to feel comfortable and seek the help they need.
While stigma can certainly be considered the most dangerous part of addiction, this fact is hopeful because we hold the power to change it. This shift cannot happen overnight, but day by day, we can be mindful and support those around us, no matter what they may be facing.
1 Desmon, Stephanie. “Drug Addiction Viewed More Negatively Than Mental Illness, Johns Hopkins Study Shows.” Johns Hopkins University, Accessed May 21, 2018.
2 Rudy Foster, Claire. “The Stigma Of Addiction Is More Dangerous Than Drug Overdoses.” Huffington Post, Accessed May 21, 2018.
3 “The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, Accessed May 21, 2018.
4 “Mental Health and Substance Abuse Coverage.” Healthcare.gov, Accessed on May 21, 2018.
5Juman, Richard. “The Deadly Stigma of Addiction.” The Fix, Accessed on May 23, 2018
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David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.