5 Ways to Address the Stigma of Substance Abuse

Trish HarperMental Health1 Comment

When you hear the word “addict”, what immediately comes to mind?

An image of a sad, scruffy man with hollow eyes? Or a young woman, on the streets, seeking someone, anyone, who will supply her with money she so desperately needs?

Perhaps other words emerged in your mind. Words that suggest pity, disgust or intolerance, like drunk or junkie. Or maybe, if someone close to you has struggled with using alcohol or drugs, you may have thought of words that evoke mercy or compassion, like hurt or troubled.

People who suffer with addiction are often subjected to judgment, ridicule and disbelief. Why don’t they just stop? The answer to that question is complex and unique to each person’s circumstances.

Unfortunately, however, it is all too common to engage in snap judgements. We believe that people use drugs because they are weak. Or they abuse alcohol because they lack morals. We judge them for the behaviour that we see and we often don’t bother to find out what is underneath it. And due to the ever-present stigma, people who battle substance abuse often feel ashamed and misunderstood. In our achievement-oriented, success-driven, individualistic society, addiction is seen as a sign of inadequacy, corruptibility, or at best, a disease.

One of the biggest revelations we have learned in recent years is the relationship between trauma and addiction. Vincent Felitti, from the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, believes that addiction is primarily a consequence of adverse childhood experiences. He is one of the authors of the ACE Study, a longitudinal study examining the relationship between adverse childhood experiences and health outcomes. Similarly, Johann Hari, an investigative journalist, says that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but human connection.

As a society, we have been working very hard to remove the stigma of mental illness. We have seen many campaigns providing information, along with celebrities sharing their stories, and advocates seeking change to our public policy and practice regarding mental health. When will someone like Princess Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, do a public service announcement on the tragedy that is addiction?

In the meantime, here are 5 ways to address the stigma and make a difference in the lives of people impacted by substance use.

1. Step away from judgment.

As long as we view addiction through a lens of preconceived ideas about the morality or lack of character of people who use substances to cope with everyday life, we will continue to see them as problems and stay stuck. This results in lack of awareness about the root causes and effective treatment options.

2. Educate yourself.

Read memoirs. If a title like Drunk Mom rankles, it may be the very title you need to read. There are other thoughtful, well-researched titles that may have something to offer. A couple of suggestions to start with: In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, by Gabor Mate, or Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, by Johann Hari.

3. Talk about it.

Don’t let silence rule. Get curious. Ask questions and really listen to people who are directly impacted by substance abuse. Chances are you will hear stories of heartbreak, trauma, loss, or lack of connection to family, culture or identity.

4. Reach out to someone you know is affected or may be affected.

Let people know you are willing to go beyond the stereotypes and understand who they are beyond whatever label they may be carrying. People will access support when they know it is there.

5. Share your knowledge

The next time you hear someone talking about a person facing addiction, and words like junkie come up, gently let people know about what you have learned.

As the child of an alcoholic father, I learned that my dad was much more than the label alcoholic or drunk would suggest. He was a caring, intelligent, kind and decent man. He struggled all of his life to overcome early instability caused by an absentee father, economic challenges and a dozen moves resulting in starting over in new schools, all before the age of 8. People who struggle with addiction have often lived through adversity and loss. They don’t need our judgment or our labels; they need our attention, understanding and compassion.

What other suggestions do you have for overcoming the stigma of substance abuse?

Trish Harper, MSW, RSW
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute Inc.

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  • yvette B

    Living with addiction is not easy. I had struggled with substance use for over 30 years. Reasons? Childhood losses, traumatic experiences as an adolescent, cultural shock etc. Today I live in complete abstinence. What tool do I use? 12 Step program. Why? This program has heped me heal my broken Spirit. -Y. B.-