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Battling the Stigma of Addiction

Addiction can disrupt and damage a person’s life in more ways than one. While the actual addiction is a war in itself to battle — untreated drug and alcohol abuse result in the deaths of thousands every year — there is another battle many face as well.

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Those with addiction are often looked down upon and blamed for their addiction instead of being seen as people in need of medical care and support. While there have been years of innovation and progress within the addiction treatment field, with more effective therapies being created, including medications for opioid and alcohol use disorders, these resources aren’t being fully utilized.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health explains that in 2017, approximately 21 million Americans, 12 and older, had at least one addiction but only 19% of those people have received treatment. There are new strides in addiction treatment that could prevent a significant number of addiction-related deaths, but people who would benefit from these treatments often don’t seek them out and one possible explanation for this is due to the stigma that surrounds addiction.

Changing our Perspective

While addiction does face enormous stigmatization by society at large, oddly, some addictions are valued within those same societies. Let’s take, for example, those who have a work addiction. How often do you hear someone being positively referred to as a workaholic or perhaps even being promoted for their tireless commitment to their job?

One way that people, usually unintentionally, reinforce the stigma of addiction is by deeming some addictions as “bad” and others, like a work addiction, as “good.” Consider for a moment, someone who struggles with a healthy work-life balance. Generally speaking, people tend to accept when work causes them (or someone they know) to become sleep deprived, distant from friends and family, or leads to complete mental, physical, and emotional overload. Of course, no one wants to be addicted to their work, but certain circumstances can make it difficult to step back. Meanwhile, someone who is dealing with a substance addiction, with similar side effects and hardships, their struggle is viewed negatively by others.

Whether we realize it or not, we often internalize what our culture and society tell us about certain issues, and this is what often results in those who have an addiction becoming hesitant to ask for help or admit they have an addiction. Furthermore, another issue with having certain addictions deemed as socially acceptable is that the people dealing with them are even less likely to seek help because their addiction is seen as a positive thing in their life.

But addiction is just that — an addiction, a loss of control, overwhelming and intense obsession. No matter what a person may be addicted to, it can still seriously impact their life and wellbeing. By changing the way we view and talk about all addictions, we will not only de-stigmatize the problems of drug and alcohol abuse but normalize things like having a healthy work-life balance and encouraging people to get professional help when they need it.

Expanding Our Understanding

Another way we can continue the battle against the stigma of addiction is by working harder to research addiction. While there is a lot of information out there about substances and addiction, not all of it is necessarily correct, and accurate information can often be hard to track down. This is problematic because most people likely don’t have the time to heavily research substances and their effects, which makes it easier to separate themselves from those with addictions and lose sympathy and compassion for the problem.

In the same realm that certain addictions get praised, there are also instances where certain substances are overly demonized. For example, a lot of misinformation is attached to substances such as Kratom and salvia. There can be an over-reaction to their use and effects, and with this over-reaction, comes the stigma towards those who have used them. Additionally, there is also an under-reaction to certain things like alcohol. Despite the long-term effects alcohol can have on your entire body and health, rarely do people put it into the same category as other highly-addictive and deadly substances.

These kinds of reactions have also, unfortunately, carried over through the years. Furthermore, for a long time, we simply didn’t have the tools or resources to fully understand addiction or how to help a person with an addiction. While it’s easy to recognize addiction and substance abuse as a problem, it’s extremely difficult to figure out how to address the problem in a positive, life-long way.

We are naturally inclined to pick the simpler answer: drugs are bad, don’t do drugs and because we overly simplify this extremely complicated issue, it then becomes easier to demonize drug use and addiction. This way of thinking inevitably gets passed down from generation to generation. So, unless people, including leaders, medical professionals, and other trusted experts take the time to replace old misconceptions about addictions and substance use with relevant, credible, and transparent information, the cycle of stigma will only continue.

To fully address the problem of addiction and help as many people as possible, we need to first recognize the prevalence of addiction stigma in the United States. Addiction, and the ripple effects of it, is something we simply cannot look away from. By confronting the problem, without blame, shame, or stigma, we can help those who need it now, as well as those in generations to come.

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Beau Peters is a creative professional with a lifetime of experience in service and care. As a manager, he has learned a slew of tricks of the trade that he enjoys sharing with others who have the same passion and dedication that he brings to his work.