Reducing the Stigma of Addiction

By |Published On: November 15th, 2023|

Deena Cohen, MPA, CADC, CTTS, WTS
Director of Community Programs, GoMo Health

Deena Cohen

In a world that is becoming increasingly aware of mental health disorders, one area still shrouded in darkness is the stigma surrounding substance use disorder (SUD). This stigma not only affects those struggling with addiction but also hampers efforts to provide effective support and treatment. It’s time to address this stigma, understand its origins, and work collectively to eradicate it by shedding light on the issue and emphasizing the importance of empathy, education, and compassion in dealing with SUD. 

The Cause and Effect of Stigma 

The stigma surrounding SUD is deeply rooted in misconceptions, fear, and a lack of understanding. People often perceive addiction as a moral failing or a lack of willpower, ignoring the complex interplay of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors. Society tends to overlook the fact that addiction is a chronic disease, one that alters the brain’s chemistry and affects an individual’s behavior, making it incredibly challenging to quit without proper support. 

The consequences of stigmatizing individuals dealing with SUD are profound. Stigmatized individuals are less likely to seek help due to fear of judgment and discrimination. This reluctance to seek treatment can lead to a worsening of their condition, creating a vicious cycle that’s hard to break. Moreover, societal stigma often translates into inadequate policies and underfunded programs, hindering the development of effective interventions. 

Steps to Overcome Stigma of Substance Use Disorder 

  • The first step in combatting stigma is education. By spreading awareness about the science of addiction, its causes, and the available treatments, we can dispel myths and promote understanding.  
  • Cultivating empathy is crucial. Realizing that addiction can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, race, or social status, helps break down barriers. Personal stories of recovery can humanize the experience, showing that with proper support, individuals can overcome addiction and lead fulfilling lives. 
  • The way we talk about SUD can either reinforce or challenge stigma. Using person-first language, such as “person with a substance use disorder” instead of “addict” or “junkie,” emphasizes the individual’s humanity, fostering respect and empathy. It’s essential to avoid derogatory terms and stereotypes that further marginalize those struggling with addiction. Other terms such as a “clean” or “dirty” urine screen should not be used, and “expected” or “unexpected” should be used instead. When encountering parenting, the term “addicted baby” should be avoided and replaced with “baby experiencing substance withdrawal” or “neonatal abstinence syndrome.”  

A Community, National, and Workplace Friendly Effort is Required  

Building supportive communities is pivotal in the fight against stigma. These communities provide a safe space where individuals in recovery can share their experiences without fear of judgment. Support groups and helplines offer vital resources, connecting people with SUD to others who have walked a similar path. Such connections provide hope, encouragement, and the knowledge that recovery is possible. 

Addressing the stigma of SUD requires not just individual efforts but also systemic changes. Advocacy for fair treatment, adequate healthcare, and evidence-based policies is essential. By supporting initiatives that prioritize addiction as a public health issue, we can break down institutional barriers and ensure that those seeking help receive the support they need.  

Workplaces also play a pivotal role in ending the stigma of SUD. Employers must create a psychologically safe environment where employees feel empowered and comfortable to seek help to address behavioral health challenges including SUD. Taking action to build a culture of belonging, empathy and support that eliminates the idea of a penalty or blame surrounding substance use, treatment and recovery is crucial. Offering solutions and programs to address these specific needs and facilitating open discussion about these treatments is a great place to start.  Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and additional resources such as Recovery Pathways: Workplace offered by GoMo Health can help and empower employees. 

The Path Forward 

Overcoming the stigma surrounding SUD is a collective responsibility. With continued education and action, we can create a society where individuals battling addiction are not condemned but helped. Let’s challenge our perceptions, educate ourselves and others, and work towards a world where every person struggling with SUD receives the compassion, assistance, and guided support they deserve. Together, we can break the chains of stigma and pave the way for a more compassionate and inclusive future.

Learn more about how you can create this culture of understanding, support and belonging for the people you serve.

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