How Stigma Prevents People from Seeking Addiction Treatment

It is unfortunate that in this day and age, people are still shunned for having an illness or addiction. In a world where the Centers for Disease Control considers the use of certain drugs an epidemic, it is a shame that individuals still have to fear seeking treatment. They fear seeking treatment not because it is difficult to stop using drugs, but because of the way people look at them for seeking help. The stigma attached to addiction is very often harder to get past than the addiction itself. In order to understand how the stigma of addiction prevents people from seeking treatment you have to know what a stigma is, what creates it, what causes it, and how it prevents someone from seeking treatment.

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Stigma Defined

Seeking Addiction Treatment

Stigma can cause people to hide their addiction and to hide the fact that they need help.

A stigma is a mark of shame; this disgrace is usually associated with a character flaw or flawed quality. It essentially means that someone has done something to be ashamed of and has a very low moral character. The stigma of addiction is the shame that people feel because they are or were addicted to drugs. These negative attitudes translate to the individual as well as the family and community. The stigma generates:

  • blame – The person blames themselves and those around them blame the person using,
  • shame – The person using feels ashamed because others look down on them,
  • hopelessness – When everyone looks down on you, you start to feel hopeless even when you are doing everything you can to correct the addiction.
  • unfair representations – media, advertising, and other public venues often spread the stigma of addiction.
  • lack of support – family and friends are also burdened by the stigma. By distancing themselves, they can save face. They worry about being seen as corrupt of immoral themselves as if somehow it is their fault.

What Creates the Stigma?

With drug addiction, the stigma was created by the actions of just a few abusers. The sight of the strung out junkie then washed over the media, making it seem as if every abuser looked and acted like these few individuals. As the media attention grew, so did the attention from government. It is unfortunate to say but the government’s antidrug public service announcements had a devastating effect. As fear and condemnation grew, so did the stigma of being an addict.

Every culture stereotypes and sometimes those stereotypes are true. Unfortunately, once that stereotype is there, it rarely is corrected. The population as a whole believes that all stereotypes are true. In the case of addiction, the stereotypes are:

  • they are all junkies without jobs
  • they will all rob you
  • they will attack you for drug money
  • in the case of women, they all end up prostituting themselves for drug money
  • they are always addicts, they can never be anything else
  • they do not care about their families
  • they will relapse
  • you can never trust an addict

In some cases, these stereotypes are correct but in many, they are not. This stereotype of an addict contributes to the stigma attached to addiction.

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47,300* People Addicted
23,100* Getting Help
8,209* Deaths
*Statistic from 2015

What Can a Stigma Cause?

The stigma of addiction has many consequences. These consequences affect the addict’s whole life. When an addict or recovering addict mentions their addiction every action, reaction, or complaint becomes about the addiction. Almost no one treats them the same after they learn the truth.

The stigma attached to drug use can prevent doctors from treating their patients properly. It is no secret that doctors are some of the most judgmental people when it comes to addiction. Many people hide their addiction from their doctors not because they want to keep using but because it stops their doctor from listening to them. Every year many addicts wind up sick or die because their doctor passed a serious condition off as a product of the addiction. This consequence also happens with therapists, paramedics, nurses, and other healthcare providers.

It also prevents pharmacists from filling vital prescriptions. Many pharmacists today are wary of anyone filling a prescription for pain medication, anxiety medication, or other necessary controlled drugs. This can prevent the addict from receiving the medication that he or she needs to function without their drug or behavior of choice.

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Stigma and Seeking Treatment

With a way that people look down on addicts it is little wonder that they do not want to seek treatment. Once treated for an addiction the addiction becomes reality to them and to those around them. Anyone involved in the treatment becomes a liability, someone who can expose their addiction to the world.

The problems that the stigma of addiction causes makes addicts not want to identify themselves as such. Many addicts will shy from treatment so that no one finds out they are addicts. Going into treatment can change:

  • The way people view them as humans
  • Their job, many addicts get fired or ostracized when they seek treatment unless that treatment is completely secret
  • Their home, landlords hesitate to rent to addicts, even ones in recovery
  • The way people treat them. Many people are continually suspicious of addicts

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, only around 10 percent of those who need treatment for addiction actually get it. The stigma of addiction can cause a person to avoid treatment when they need it most. It is not the pain of withdrawal or the hardship of going to a rehab; it is the looks that people give you when you are an addict. It is the distrust that happens when people find out that you are a recovering drug addict and it is the humiliation of having to seek treatment for something you think you should be able to control.

the Take-Away

Stigma leads to shame and guilt, coupled with denial and secrecy which all can prevent a person from feeling okay and safe enough to openly seek treatment for addiction.