Overcoming The Stigma of Addiction

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Stigma of Addiction: The Problem


When someone is struggling with addiction, one of the hardest aspects for them is often the stigma of addiction. When someone struggling with addiction feels disgraced and shamed about their addiction, the individual may worry that they are worthless and can’t get better. This can demotivate them and makes it harder for them to seek out the addiction treatment they need. Join Avenues Recovery, leading addiction rehabilitation experts, in our support for individuals struggling with substance abuse disorders. Read on to discover what substance abuse stigma is, what it feels like, and how you can help fight it.

The Harm of Addiction Stigma

Those who are addicted to a substance or alcohol will find that one of the major barriers to overcoming addiction and overdose is known as stigma. Originally a Greek and Latin word, stigma literally means tattoo, burn, or another mark that is inflicted on someone to show their disgrace.

Our modern world has a slightly different meaning for the word stigma. Today, stigma means discrimination, stereotyping, or labeling. In the context of addiction, it means that others use judgmental or disparaging terms to refer to the addiction, people who have a substance use disorder, or treatments for the disease.

When people suffering feel the stigma of their addiction, it is hard for them to get better. The stigma of alcoholism or substance abuse makes them feel like a disgrace for falling victim to the addiction. They worry that they will not be able to get better and that they are not even worthy of someone caring for them, because they are hopeless. This can cause the individual to give up any hope of trying to get better, and can make the addiction worse than before.

Drug Addiction Stigma

Drug abuse stigma is one of the most prevalent forms of stigma around addiction. Even drug rehab, the best option for recovering from substance abuse and dependence, is often stigmatized. If the addicted person feels disgraced for seeking help for their addiction, they may refuse the help that they need. They may decide that it is not worth the shame, that they are better off having the addiction rather than seeking treatment, and that they will not get better. Drug treatment and detox centers are the best places to begin a lasting recovery journey. There, people can safely detox, and enter inpatient rehab. But if the person is affected by the stigmatization of addiction and addiction treatment, they may hesitate to take that crucial step forward.

Where Does Addiction Stigma Come From?

Research has been carried out to understand where stigma comes from and why it is so prevalent in our society. This research shows that stigma can be persistent, pervasive, and rooted in the debunked idea that addiction is a personal choice. Much of society believes that people suffering from a substance abuse disorder:

  • Choose to keep using the substance
  • Do not have the willpower to stop
  • Do not stop because of incorrect morals

Addiction is much more complex than that. If it were just dependent on the willpower of the individual, far fewer people would deal with a long-term addiction. Without the right support and understanding of their disease, it is nearly impossible to get better. Quality drug detox and treatment centers believe in this concept and design their addiction treatment programming around it.
When choosing a drug inpatient or outpatient center near you, it is vital to know how to find the right rehab center for your needs and investigate the staff who will be providing care. Make sure that they don’t look down on their clients, but rather understand their clients’ struggles and the root of the problem. If the staff adds to the clients’ feelings of deficiency, they exacerbate the damage and make addiction recovery less likely.

What the Stigma of Addiction Feels Like

Stigma of addiction is hard to overcome. Those struggling with addiction stigma, such as substance abuse stigma or stigma of alcoholism, feel like they should be strong enough to fight the addiction, but they can’t do it. Addiction stigma leads many affected individuals to think incorrect and damaging thoughts, such as:

  • Something is wrong with me
  • I am a bad person
  • I did something wrong
  • I deserve the difficult hand I have been dealt. 

Constantly being judged for behavior out of a person’s control is a very lonely and painful feeling. Drug rehab is designed to empower and build people struggling with substance use disorders, in place of creating guilt and destruction.

The danger of death and drug overdose is compounded for individuals suffering from substance abuse disorders who are exposed to constant negativity.

How Does Addiction Stigma Affect Families?

Addiction stigma often causes consequences not just to those suffering but to their family as well. Many families feel judged because their loved one is dealing with an addiction. People may insinuate that they were morally wrong and somehow responsible for their loved ones’ substance abuse disorder. 

Families may have a choice to make. They can choose to try and support their loved one with an addiction, despite it attracting more stigma toward them and making them look like they are doing something wrong too. This can be hard for many individuals, even those with the best intentions. 

Instead, families may try to separate themselves from their loved one suffering from substance abuse in the hopes of avoiding some of the stigma. This can leave the person who needs them without their most important source of support. There is nothing worse for someone who needs to recover from an addiction than a family who disassociates from them.

How the Stigma of Addiction Affects Everyday Life

Stigma attached to addiction and mental health can show up in several different forms. It can affect almost all aspects of the life of the person with a mental health disorder or addiction. Some of the examples of this stigma attached to addiction and mental health include:

  • Discrimination in a social or professional setting, making it hard for those suffering to meet others or even advance in their careers.
  • Lack of understanding from members of their family, colleagues, and friends
  • Bullying
  • Poor self-esteem and confidence due to the factors above
  • Reluctance to get the mental health or addiction treatment that they need to help them get better

Reluctance to accept addiction treatment, due to the stigma, can make one’s illness much worse.

How We Can Reduce the Stigma of Addiction

There are different steps that we can take to provide help to those who struggle with an addiction and reduce addiction stigma You can help reduce the stigma around addiction, by:

  • Offering support that is compassionate, rather than judgmental
  • Displaying kindness to those in a vulnerable situation
  • Listening to those who have an addiction without judgment
  • Seeing the person fighting addiction as a unique person, rather than just focusing on the drugs they use
  • Doing some research to understand how drug dependency works and how you can help
  • Avoiding some of the common labels that can be hurtful
  • Replacing some of the negative attitudes that you have with facts based on evidence
  • Speaking up any time you see that an individual is mistreated for their drug use

With compassion and some other small steps, it is possible to break the stigma of addiction. It starts with one person at a time, one person who realizes the harm that stigma causes. When an individual is feeling helpless, your smile can make a difference. We all have a part of breaking the cycle of stigma related to addiction. Lets start seeing people instead of their struggles.

Say It the Right Way

People struggling with addiction suffer when loved ones, relatives, or acquaintances refer to their disease in derogatory terms. The table below suggests better alternatives to some common words and phrases that can be hurtful to individuals with an addiction disorder.

Instead of…






Person with a substance use disorder

Dirty toxicology results

Negative toxicology results

Substance abuse


Substance use disorder

Replacement therapy

Substitution therapy

Medication-assisted treatment

Medication for substance use disorder


In recovery

In remission

Addicted baby

Baby exposed to substances

Get Help Without the Stigma of Addiction

Struggling with addiction is hard enough. You shouldn’t have to deal with addiction stigma on top of it. At Avenues Recovery, our team of dedicated professionals are waiting to help you recover.
Because we know what addiction feels like, you won’t face any judgment at Avenues Recovery. Contact us today to find out how we can help you get better.

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