The word Stigma means a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person.
Social stigmas are a way of people to judge others based on a certain belief they hold, regardless of whether it’s been proven wrong. In the case of addiction, many still believe it’s a reflection of a person’s character like weakness, delinquency or gullibility. On the contrary, science has long since proven that addiction is a disease of the brain.
Addiction is a “primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry,” as described by the American Society of Addiction Medicine. The National Institute on Drug Abuse in the US also defines addiction as a ‘chronic, relapsing brain disease” that changes the structure and functionality of the brain. So why do so many people still think of addicts as drunks, crackheads or junkies?
Unfortunately, these perceptions have existed for as long as there have been addicts. Governments often treat drug addicts as criminals and even some in the rehab community use terms like “dirty” urine, which helps propagate these stigmas.
Employers often fire employees who are addicted, insurance companies often refuse to cover treatment or demand higher premiums, or add penalties and conditions to policies, to avoid the perceived risks. Families often try to hide their addicted loved ones from society to avoid tainting their standing, and in the hope the addict will grow out of it, or that the phase will pass. These perceptions lead to most people bullying or disrespecting addicts. This drives addicts deeper into their addiction as they feel cornered, misunderstood and ridiculed, or suffer from stress, pain and depression. And one of the worst consequences is that they will often refuse treatment, or leave it halfway, to prevent people from finding out their problem. This path can lead to overdosing and even suicide.
Now do you see why these stigmas are deadly?
Now, let’s look a little deeper into the worst ways that this stigmatization can affect those suffering from this disease, and what needs to be done to make things better.
Addicts avoid getting treated: If such a person gets into rehab, they believe, and rightly so, that society will start seeing them differently instead of commending them on taking the road to recovery. This, coupled with guilt, shame and the effects of stigma, leads the addicted to shy away from treatment. And this can be fatal. Without treatment, the chances of overdosing, depression and suicide grow by the day. Remove the misconceptions and the stigma and addicts would find it easier to find support.
Misperceptions of the medical community: As strange as this may seem, many doctors are not as well informed about addiction as you may think. Often, doctors recommend patients to 12-step programmes and support groups instead of directing them towards medical, evidence based resources. Such programmes have helped many addicts, but not all. Those who they can’t help find themselves lost with nowhere to go. It’s about time medical professionals started seeing addiction as the disease it is and send their patients to get better scientifically supported treatment.
Mental health personnel ostrasize addiction: Even psychiatrists and psychologists have a tendency of considering substance abuse patients to be untreatable and refuse to treat them before they get clean. This is such a massive problem because mental health issues may be the one of the causes of the addiction in the first place, or maybe psychological treatment is required for the patient to recover. Many clinicians dismiss what patients tell them and blame it on ‘just the drugs talking’. So you see? This helps no one. This way, the addiction stays and so do the mental diseases that could well be related to the addiction. Wouldn’t it be amazing if psychotherapists could consider substance abuse as a disease and equally worthy of treatment?
Addiction is considered a crime: In India, using drugs is illegal. This really is testament to how deeply ingrained this stigma against addiction is in our system. This in itself leads to insurance companies staying away from covering addicts and the lack of treatment, let alone subsidization of rehabilitation in our country. If we could somehow show our elected representatives the facts behind drug usage and addiction, there would be a massive change on how addicts are perceived and treated, don’t you think? But convincing them of these facts would be so difficult.
Stigmatization can continue, even during treatment: When a patient enrolls onto a rehab programme, they are very vulnerable. They’ve been fighting the addiction for so long that their guilt, shame and a feeling of failure becomes constant. Their brain chemistry has also been altered to such an extent that their mental health is very volatile. This makes it all the more important for recovery centres to be especially sensitive to their patients. If all the personnel don’t go through proper sensitization and training, some of them may hang on to the stigma attached to addiction. This could surface when they are interacting with the patient and reinforce the negative emotions the addict is already going through. So always make sure of the quality of the centre you are getting into and confirm that they take these factors into consideration and also involve the patient in their own recovery plan, like choosing modes of treatment and setting their own goals.
People in recovery are always under suspicion: Another serious problem is that people in rehab are still regarded as weak and susceptible to relapse. This would affect patients even after they leave the rehabilitation programme and start recovering at home. Every day, their family, friends and colleagues would question their ability to stay clean. These would act as constant hurdles for the ex-addict and sometimes hamper progress. Imagine how much quicker the person would recover without all the stigma he or she is faced with every day.
They confront stigma-based roadblocks constantly: People in receovery find it difficult to hold jobs, get welfare benefits or insurance, and so much more in addition to all the questions and criticism they have to face. Other who recover from disease feel proud that they had beaten back their illness. But those who went through addiction and recovery can’t raise their heads that high, as they always have to face the stigma that society holds for them.
But we must do something about this. Each one of us can contribute to spreading awareness of addiction and help society break free of its stigmas.
What we must do is talk about addiction and how it’s seen by society, and how it’s wrong. Show people how addiction is a disease and doesn’t reflect on the character of the person going through it. Rather, we need to support these people instead of shunning them. And, if you know someone who has an addiction, be supportive and make sure they know you understand what they’re going through.
We really hope this helps in opening minds, starting conversations and helping those suffering from addiction to come to terms with their condition. If you have any questions, please leave us your messages here. We really do try our best to help, and will get back with you as soon as we can!