It is unfortunate, but addiction carries a sentence beyond the fight for recovery. It carries a stigma that somehow addicts are lesser people. The popular belief that only certain kinds of people become addicts perpetuates a negative feeling about those who are recovering from addiction. Despite the fact that most medical and psychiatric communities now define addiction as a disease of the brain rather than a choice or character flaw, people still view addicts and recovering addicts as less than themselves. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, even race and socioeconomic status contributes to the stigma that surrounds drug addiction.
A recovering addict needs support. They need a place that is free from judgment. Often times, these individuals are already suffering from depression and anxiety due to their addictions; almost any adversity can cause a relapse. Unfortunately, with the current climate of addiction, people are extremely judgmental and their attitude comes out in how they deal with someone they know is an addict. It is possible to fight the stigma of addiction if you know how.
Consequences Caused by Stigmas
Knowing the consequences of judgmental nature will help some people get over their negative attitudes towards others who are suffering. Some of these consequences can be seen in the following situations:
- Addicts might not seek treatment for their addiction because of fear of being judged or shunned.
- Communities are less accepting of treatment programs due to the popular opinions that all drug addicts are criminals.
- Addicts who otherwise would find help feel as if they have to hide the fact that they are, or previously were, addicts.
- Some addicts lose their jobs, not because of the addiction but because people do not understand or accept that the addiction is under control or that it is a disease.
- The depression and anxiety an addict feels is often escalated by the lack of acceptance from family, friends, employers, and the community. This can cause a relapse.
Most people do not realize what their judgment does to others. They ignore the hurt and challenges that are caused when they look frown upon others. Judgement and shame can come as a result of the way a non-addict looks at, talks to or otherwise mistreats the individual who is suffering from an addiction or who once suffered from an addiction.
Why Stigmas Matter
The stigma of addiction places a recovering addict in distinct danger. There is not only the danger of relapse; other dangers may also exist within the medical community. Similar to mental illness, everything an addict complains about is attributed to the addiction. Examples of this occurring may include:
- A person in complete recovery goes to the doctor complaining of back pain. The doctor sees their history of addiction and refuses to prescribe a painkiller. Not only do they refuse to treat the problem, they just assume the pain is due to the addiction. The pain could be an injury, a heart attack, or another serious medical condition. At this point, not only is the pain not being addressed, the medical condition that caused the pain is ignored, all at the expense of the patient’s health.
- An addict that has issues with prescription medication goes to the doctor and gets a prescription for anxiety. They have the prescription filled by the doctor the first few times but then have to go to a pharmacy. The pharmacy sees the history of addiction and refuses to fill the prescription for anxiety medication. If the medication is a benzodiazepine, not having it sends the addict into withdrawal. Benzodiazepine are particularly dangerous drugs to withdraw from without tapering. Again, all of this at the expense of the patient’s own health.
- A known user calls an ambulance because they feel something is legitimately wrong with them. The paramedics attribute everything to the addiction and blow off the patient’s legitimate concerns.
None of the above examples should ever happen. Unfortunately, things like this occur more frequently than you may believe. Because addiction carries a stigma and is not viewed as a disease by many professionals, mistakes are often made as a result of overlooking an actual health concern due to the stigma that comes along with a past or present addiction.
Fighting the Stigma of Addiction
Everyone can play a part in fighting the stigma of addiction. Other than becoming an open advocate against the way people treat recovering addicts, you can:
- Seek out individuals who understand addiction, its consequences and the stigmas surrounding the disease. By spending time around recovering addicts who can prove to you that the stigmas are not warranted judgements you can reduce your judgmental nature and possibly influence others in the same direction.
- Do not be negative. Even though others are negative towards you, it is important not to let things get to you. If someone expresses negativity, stay away from them. Their negativity can only damage you and your recovery.
- The best way to fight stereotypes and stigmas is not be them. By recovering and not relapsing, you can fight the typical once an addict always an addict stereotype.
- Speak out against the stigma every chance you get. If you see someone acting judgmental, say something to them. Ask them why in a constructive manner. Educate people about addiction and recovery; make sure they understand what happens. Most stigmas are easily refuted when you present people with evidence against it.
- Ask for equality in healthcare. If you see something unjust or if they are treating you unfairly because of the addiction, talk to someone about it, even if you have to go to someone higher in rank than they are.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, one of the best ways to stop the stigma behind addiction and recovery is to not perpetuate it. Be informed about your rights and make sure that those around you are as well. Talk to your representatives in government about education programs and legislative changes. You can fight the stigma of addiction by not representing the stereotype and by speaking out against it when appropriate.