Stigma involves negative stereotypes, labels and discrimination against a group of people. Although people can be stigmatized for many reasons and in a variety of settings, health-related stigma can be especially problematic. An article in BMC Medicine notes that it affects all quality care elements: diagnosis, treatment and outcomes. The authors note that stigma about health conditions is often driven by fear, lack of awareness about the condition, and disbelief that it can be cured.
Unfortunately, addiction is a highly stigmatized health disorder. A comparison of attitudes regarding mental illness and drug addiction found that people were less willing to work closely with someone with drug addiction, more skeptical about addiction treatment’s effectiveness and more willing to accept discrimination against them.
Some stigmas are unavoidable because the stigmatized attributes are obvious and easily observable. Others are more easily hidden. It’s no surprise that people with stigmatized conditions that aren’t immediately obvious don’t have much desire to disclose them and find themselves labeled and discriminated against.
As a U.S. National Institute on Health article on stigma as a barrier to addiction treatment notes, “secrecy, treatment avoidance, and treatment delay are defensive mechanisms employed as a result of perceived stigma; individuals with stigmatized conditions . . . may forgo treatment to avoid the diagnostic label that solidifies them as a member of a stigmatized group.”
Stigmas and Secrecy
Stigma tends to produce secrecy, and secrecy increases stigma because people have no stories to contradict and override the stereotyped ones the culture produces. Even when people have entered or completed treatment, sometimes they and their family members are hesitant to talk about it, leaving other people looking for help or stories of hope with nowhere to turn.
It also leaves patients and their families isolated and without support from people around them. Stigma can even indirectly contribute to relapse. Substance use often increases when stress is high and social support is low, and the secrecy of a stigmatized condition can create those conditions.
For addiction to become less stigmatized, two primary messages need to become part of the public consciousness. The first is that addiction is a brain disease, not a character flaw or choice. As with heart disease, diabetes and many other illnesses, genetics, personal history and behavior contribute to the condition and how well it’s managed.
The second truth that people need to internalize is that it’s highly likely that everyone knows someone in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction, whether or not they’re aware of it. People from all walks of life experience addiction and recovery. Overriding stereotyped depictions of what someone with an addiction looks like is vital. Research into overcoming stigma indicates that interactions between people living with stigmatized health conditions and the general public are important in changing attitudes.
Do you or your loved one have a story of hope to share? Or are you looking for one? Help us remove the barriers to treatment by sharing your stories of recovery with others.
We can help you build your own recovery path. At The Right Step Hill Country, we work to educate and guide our clients through their addiction challenges. Our recovery specialists are here to help you as you begin the process of hope.
Call us today at 844.675.1628.
By Martha McLaughlin