There is still a lot of stigma around addiction in society. Many people have very negative views and preconceived ideas of who becomes addicted to substances, why they develop an addiction, and what it means about their character that substances had so great an impact.
While this stigmatised view of addiction is slowly changing with education and a shift in how society handles mental health, there is still a long way to go. Here are some suggestions to deal with the felt sense of stigma.
What is Stigma in Addiction?
Stigma is a persistent, negative belief about something. With regards to addiction, stigma is the idea that only a certain type of person becomes addicted to substances. It’s the belief that anyone who struggles with addiction has some sort of moral failing and is somehow a “bad” person. Stigma assumes the worst about those who struggle with problematic substance use, and even those who choose recovery.
To ask someone to imagine their idea of what someone struggling with addiction looks like is to hear preconceived notions of what people who struggle with substance use look like. Often, people will describe someone completely out of control of their lives, hygiene, finances, and relationships. In media, those struggling with addiction issues are often seen as chaotic, unreliable, and other almost exclusively negative attributes.
Frankly, the portrayal of addiction in media hasn’t done anything to quell this stigma and has, in fact, only increased it. Addiction is often the vehicle for drama and discord in television and movies. In the news, addiction rates and drugs are often sensationalised to spread fear. Those with addiction are seen as people to pity.
Interestingly, the opposite is true. Many people struggling with substance use issues are fully functioning members of society—soccer moms, corporate professionals, and promising college students. It would be erroneous to believe that addiction issues only affect a certain population, and not impacts people from all walks of life. But regardless of their situation, those struggling with addiction need compassion, resources, and support—not “tough love,” vilification, and judgment.
The stigma often makes it harder for people to reach out and get support because they don’t want to be labeled or judged. There is already a great amount of shame – further punishment doesn’t help at all. This fear of judgment often pushes those who have chosen recovery to keep their struggles and successes private. Stigma, among other things, can be very isolating, which is incredibly damaging and detrimental as a big part of recovery is social support and understanding.
Steps to Manage the Sting of Stigma in Recovery
So, what can we do about it? How do we cope with stigma in our journey? Here are some ideas to work against the sting of stigma in your life.
- Challenge Your Preconceptions
Before you can work towards abating the pain of stigma, it’s important to recognise your own preconceived ideas and judgments about addiction and what you’re telling yourself. In what ways have you internalised the stigma? What are your thoughts about others who are struggling with addiction?
We all should take an earnest look at our inner thoughts and the ways that we hold judgment against ourselves and others for our substance dependence. This makes building a community of understanding and safety easier.
- Educate Others
An idea that’s often used to deal with stigma is education. Stigma is borne out of a lack of education, and, unfortunately, until the conversation changes and the global society is ready and willing to be educated about what addiction actually is, it won’t change. A simple way to counteract stigma is to talk to others. An empathic understanding is important when it comes to working against stigma, and that happens through conversations and education.
- Challenging Stigmatising Language
Language is powerful. Many don’t even realise how much stigmatizing language they use in their everyday life and how damaging and harmful this language can be. Unfortunately, there is a lot of stigmatising and derogatory language when it comes to addiction. You can take steps to incorporate less stigmatised language in your everyday speech.
For example, instead of saying “drug addict” or “alcoholic,” you can say “person struggling with substance misuse” or “person in recovery.” This centers on the person (not the addiction). Instead of talking about people “getting clean,” you can speak in terms of “in recovery,” as referring to people as “clean” or “dirty” holds a subtle but powerful form of stigma. These little linguistic changes are simple but powerful.
- Share Your Story
Every person has a story, those who have chosen to enter into recovery from substance use are no different. Sharing their experiences can help shift the narrative when it comes to addiction and healing. Sharing your story, no matter where you are on your recovery journey, is an excellent tool for shifting public and personal conceptions of addiction and celebrating your own courage. The more open we are, the more we empower others to be open as well.
Reach Out Today
Navigating the stigma of addiction will not come overnight. Often, we must unlearn years or decades of negative beliefs that we’ve held about the nature of addiction and, possibly, ourselves. If you find yourself having a hard time dealing with the stigma of addiction and recovery, or you need support in communicating with friends and family, reach out today.
If you live in the Vancouver, B.C. area and are interested in learning more about building your recovery plan along with a trained and empathetic addictions counselor, contact Hard Road Counselling today.
About Bill Arbuckle
Bill Arbuckle has worked in the field of addiction treatment since 2009. Bill specializes in treating addiction and trauma using Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP) and Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
Bill also has personal experience with addiction and substance use, found his way back to the light, and works to help others do the same. He is the founder and clinical director of Hard Road Counselling, a practice specializing in addiction counselling in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is also the clinical director of After the Storm Recovery Center in Todos Santos, Baja California, Mexico.