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Shattering Addiction Stigma In And Out Of Recovery

Addiction stigma caused people with a substance use disorder to be widely scorned rather than treated. Although we have a much more enlightened and refined understanding of addiction based on direct observation, it seems that attitudes from less informed times continue to pervade today’s culture.

Before we realized that addiction was a disease, the consensus was that anyone who exhibited excessive substance abuse behavior was simply choosing not to exercise any self-control. In other words, it was believed that these were bad people who were morally weak and had apparently lost their connections with God.

Compared to other diseases like cancer or diabetes, addiction is a complicated disease. Neither physical nor psychological, the disease lives somewhere in between, affecting the mind, body, and spirit in nearly equal measures. 

Additionally, the fact that people who become addicted are different and experience the disease differently. This adds to the complexity and is likely the reason why addiction remained so poorly understood until somewhat recently.

However, with decades of research and study, we’ve developed various approaches to treat addiction. Some people swear by 12-step programs, and others credit their recoveries with the holistic or naturalistic methods of treatment. However, the most effective means of overcoming alcoholism or drug addiction is getting professional treatment at an addiction recovery facility.


When you consider public perceptions of people with addictions and the disease of addiction, it’s important to consider how people are forming their opinions. In other words, what information are they receiving in which they are basing their judgments?

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM)defines addiction as a “primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry.” Yet, the majority of the U.S. population continues to view addiction as a moral failing rather than a disease. The public perception is that individuals with addictions are immoral or weak and not struggling with a chronic brain disorder.

There are a couple of key reasons for this, but the bottom line is that these views are based on widespread information.

Take the media, for instance. If someone with substance use disorder is portrayed in the media, it’s almost guaranteed the person will be the personification of the “worst-case scenario” of addiction. This often means showing criminals, homeless people, and people who have contracted a disease through drug use. They claim these people represent the entire population of people with a drug or alcohol problem.

Unfortunately, that encourages the addiction stigma that has continued to persist in our society. Moreover, while government leaders assert that addiction is a brain disease for which people shouldn’t be demonized and punished, their actions indicate otherwise.

It’s difficult for the public to be objective and sympathetic when the government claims to understand addiction as a disease, while also implying that people who are affected are an enemy of the public needing to be defeated.


The best way to explain why people with a substance use disorder are so highly stigmatized is with a very common expression: “bad apples can spoil the bunch.” In effect, it’s so stigmatized because only the worst-case scenarios are being publicized.  They’re the only people with a drug or alcohol problem that the viewing public is seeing. It’s almost as if they’re representing all people with addictions.

This makes the general population assume that the homeless, diseased, criminals they see in the media are what every person with addiction would be like. It causes them to be fearful and distrustful of anyone who’s addicted to alcohol or drugs. 

Essentially, they fail to see addiction as a disease because the portrayals of people with substance use disorder they’re seeing are being sensationalized and misrepresented. This causes lower opinions of addicted people than what’s deserved.


People struggling with addiction are the ones who live with the stigma due to stigma and demonization. This extremely low public perception of these individuals is the reason why most of them don’t want to seek treatment. It would require them to admit to their addictions. By remaining in active addiction, they can try to keep their alcoholism or drug addictions from their communities whom they know would judge them harshly.

There have been many sources which look at theeffects of addiction stigmatization on the alcohol- and drug-addicted community. The consensus is that addiction stigma is discouraging them from seeking treatment. 

This essentially makes the stigma a self-fulfilling prophecy because the discrimination discourages individuals from treatment. The longer the person remains in active addiction; the more likely they are to sink to such lows that they end up resorting to criminal behavior or being exposed to the disease.


The most obvious problem with the addiction stigma is that it punishes many for the actions of a few. Since it’s the most marginalized people being publicized, every person with substance use disorder is being judged by that model. 

This is incorrect. People with addictions are at many different levels of severity. There are people from very different backgrounds in addiction therapy and with a variety of alcohol and/or drug use disorders. One outdated, incorrect mold does not fit the majority of people with addictions — in treatment or not. 

In fact, many haven’t harmed anyone else during their addiction. Yet, they are being viewed as bad people. This discourages them from seeking treatment. Nobody wants to be persecuted for things they’ve not done. The stigma is both unfair and unjust.

Stigma is a word with negative connotations in our society. No one wants to be stigmatized for who they are, where they come from, what they do or don’t do, have money or not, or have an addiction. Individuals with a substance use disorder are people just like you and me. 

Shatter stigma. Dispel the stereotyped person with addiction with a more realistic one.


If you or someone you like is struggling with a substance use disorder and would like a free consultation, contact Pathway to Hope today. We’re available anytime, day or night, to help you or your loved one find the right rehab and begin the journey of recovery. Don’t let stigma keep you from getting the best addiction treatment. Find your way back to health today.


Bertrand T

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