Overcoming Social Stigma Around Addiction Treatment – By Lee Weber


Several studies have found that substance use disorders are more highly stigmatized than other health conditions. Through the stigma, social groups discourage and marginalize the condition, which seriously affect the people at risk. For example, stigmatizing attitudes regarding certain behaviors (e.g. substance use during pregnancy) and groups (e.g. injection drug users) are widely accepted, culturally endorsed, and enshrined in policy or criminal law.

Experts believe that stigma does two main things:

  1. Increases substance use among younger adolescents.
  2. Decreases motivation for people to seek help.

Here, we’ll take a look at what the stigmas are. We’ll also explore what YOU CAN DO when facing a drug problem. Finally, we invite your feedback at the end. In fact, we’ll try to respond to your real life question with a personal response!

Dangers of Social Views on Addiction

The first thing to know about addiction: people who are facing addiction suppress feelings of shame. They accept the problem as their own fault, putting too much burden on their backs. This is when self-esteem starts crashing. People who are victims of the stigma of addiction see themselves as too weak to solve their own problems, which makes the willingness for change disappear.

Very often people who have substance use disorders are perceived to have control over their illness. So, the blame and pressure thrown at them can change the way they view themselves. Society responds to the stigma with anger and punishment, or avoidance. Ultimately, society holds addicts responsible for their behavior.

These are some of the main reasons why psychological breakdown is common occurrence during tough emotional and/or physical attacks. Add to it the fear of losing a child, friend, job, or medical insurance…no wonder stimga can make people hide a drug addiction!

Plus, substance use behaviors are often linked – symbolically – to a range of other stigmatized health conditions such as:

  • Hepatitis C virus
  • Mental illness
  • Unsafe behaviors (impaired driving)
  • Social problems (poverty, criminality)

These negative views of people guide social action, public policy, and the allocation of health-care expenditures. Therefore, people with substance use disorders may experience stigma as a consequence of the culturally endorsed stereotypes that surround the health condition.

How to Cope with the Stigma of Addiction?

There are many studies that show how self-stigma can be reduced through therapeutic interventions such as group-based acceptance and commitment therapy. Some effective strategies address social stigma by sharing positive stories of people who have successfully struggled with the stigma of addiction.

Some of the steps a person facing an addiction can take include:

  1. Accept your illness and learn how you can heal from it. Do not blame yourself! There are many circumstances that lead to this condition.
  2. Attend a self-help group such as SMART Recovery, Alcoholics Anonymous, or Narcotics Anonymous which can support you while recovering. You are not alone. Many people have walked the same path as you. Their experiences can help you manage your addiction easier.
  3. Learn more about your addiction. Understand how your drug-of-choice works in the brain and how it affects you physically and psychologically. This is how you prepare yourself for living a substance-free life. The therapy you choose will help you build up your self-confidence and self-esteem again, and create new healthy habits that will help you overcome any possible relapse.
  4. Talk to your friends or family about your concerns and what you feel in your relationship with them. Their support will mean a lot to your recovery from addiction.
  5. Seek professional help. A range of interventions may be able to influence the way that you see yourself. The limited evidence indicates that therapeutic interventions, such as group-based ACT and vocational counseling, are likely to produce positive effects.

Programs That Help Address Stigma

On a broader level, a couple of programs have been developed to try to reduce stigma so far. These include programs that educate medical students about substance use. By exposing fledgling doctors to people with substance use disorders, the programs aim to decrease stigmatizing attitudes and increase comfort levels working with this population.

Further, interventions that target police officers and substance use counselors have positive effects on stigma-related outcomes associated with substance use disorders. These interventions can affect prejudices based in stigma and make their approach more neutrally when working with this category of people.

Finally, improving the attitudes of the general public towards people with substance use disorders may be best accomplished through communication strategies that promote positive stories and through motivational interviewing approaches with particular target groups (e.g. landlords or employers). With increased tolerance and understanding, people who suffer from addiction can easily get the help they need without a fear of being discriminated.

Your Questions

Did you find this article useful? If you still have questions about overcoming social stigma around addiction treatment, please write to us at the bottom of the page. We`ll try our best to respond to you personally and promptly…or to refer you to someone who can help.

Lee Weber

About Lee Weber

AUTHOR BIO: Lee W. is a writer, mother, and lover in long-term addiction recovery. Her challenge is balance, maybe because she’s a Libra.
Bookmark the permalink.