Addiction and Social Stigmas

Addiction is challenging, and the stigma that surrounds it makes it even harder to manage. Social stigma, sometimes called public stigma, occurs when people have negative prejudices and stereotypes about a particular group, and unfortunately, people with addiction often find themselves in that category. Of the 18 most stigmatized conditions, illicit drug use disorder tops the list, and alcohol use disorder comes in at number four. 


An article on addiction stigma notes that there are three major components of social stigmas that can negatively affect people with substance use disorder:

  1. Stereotyping
  2. Emotional reactions
  3. Status loss and discrimination



These are some of the stereotypes that may be part of addiction stigma.

  • Danger and unpredictability: More than 70% of people surveyed believe that people with addiction tend to be violent. They’re believed to be more unpredictable than people with dementia, depression, eating disorders or panic attacks and more dangerous than people with a variety of mental illnesses. 
  • Decision-making ability: A survey about cocaine addiction found that a majority of people believe that people with cocaine dependence are “not at all” or “not very” capable of making treatment decisions. More than 90% believe they’re unable to manage money.
  • Attributional beliefs: Ideas about whether people are responsible for their substance use disorders affect the degree of stigma. Studies find that people rate those with addiction as more to blame for their illness than people with other psychiatric conditions. 
  • Treatment prognosis: Most people believe that individuals with alcohol and drug use disorders can recover, but about half of survey respondents believe they can control their behavior without treatment.
  • Immorality: One study found that people considered those addicted to heroin to be more immoral than people with diabetes, depression or schizophrenia, but less immoral than people who commit fraud or theft.


Emotional reactions fuel addiction stigma

People have various emotional reactions to individuals who experience addiction, including fear, anger and pity. There’s more fear of individuals with drug addiction than people with physical disorders or other psychiatric conditions.


Status loss and discrimination

Social stigma can have many repercussions. It may keep lawmakers and other decision-makers from allocating funds to address substance-related issues. It may also cause medical professionals to provide lower-quality care.


Stigma can keep people from seeking the help because they don’t want to be labeled. It rings true for both addiction treatment and treatment for other needs. The director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse shares the story of a man whose leg was badly infected from injecting heroin but who refused to go to the emergency room because of negative treatment he’d received in the past.

She notes that he “preferred risking his life, or probable amputation, to the prospect of repeating his humiliation.”


Reversing stigma starts with education and being careful about how we speak about addiction and people with substance use disorders. If we treat it and speak about it differently than we do other diseases, we may be unconsciously reflecting stigma. Telling stories, especially those that contradict the negative stereotypes, is very important. 


Addiction Recovery is Possible

Social stigmas don’t have to impact you or your loved one from getting the help you need. At The Right Step Hill Country, we provide the tools to help you thrive in recovery. Let us help you find the path back to yourself.

Call us today at 844.675.1628.

By Martha McLaughlin

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