Shame and the Stigma of Addiction: How Can we Overcome a Stigma So Strong?

stigmatized addictionThe stigma of addiction can chew you up and spit you out leaving you crushed from the pain of being ridiculed and put to shame. It’s the stigma of addiction that places a supposed character flaw against you for being an addict—but are you really a flawed individual? Is every addict really flawed to the point of complete shame?

Whether you’re the addict or the loved one who has been significantly overtaken by the addiction of someone you love, the stigma that hangs around when addiction is present only escalates the situation creating a burden so heavy that to overcome it seems impossible—but it’s not! Help is available and through inpatient rehab, you learn how to heal and overcome the shame that is caused from long-term stigmatization associated with addiction.

Call our helpline at 1-877-360-9738 today for help finding a rehab center that will NOT shame you for your addiction. Our caring, compassionate treatment providers are standing by to accept your call and help you through this difficult time.

Addiction is a Disease Not a Character Flaw

woman impacted by addictionAlthough it’s been years now since the scientists first started studying drug abuse and the misconceptions of addiction, there is still a strong overall sense by those who are NOT addicted to consider this problem a moral or character related flaw. Something that the user can stop if he or she “wanted” to, or something that merely is the result of “poor upbringing” or “bad parenting.” However, science tells us otherwise.

Science tells us that, our old views and responses to addiction and other substance use disorders are mostly wrong. According to NIDA,

“we know that addiction is a disease that affects both the brain and behavior. We have identified many of the biological and environmental factors and are beginning to search for the genetic variations that contribute to the development and progression of the disease.”

Addiction is a disease, much like diabetes or asthma or cancer. It impacts the lives of millions of individuals and their loved ones, but instead of seeking help, our first approach is to run, hide or mask the problem. WHY? Because people still simply do not understand why people become addicted to drugs or alcohol and they, in return, see addiction as a character flaw or a moral shortcoming.

Addiction impairs the brain on many levels. Depending on the type of addiction and the time of onset, brain dysfunction can may require a number of intervention variables in order to STOP the problem. Sadly,

“an addicted person’s impaired ability to stop using drugs or alcohol has to do with deficits in the function of the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain involved in executive function,”

according to Dr. Michael Bierer.

Understanding the Prefrontal Cortex

impacts of addiction on the prefrontal cortex are numerousStudies prove that drug abuse alters the ability for the prefrontal cortex to function properly. What does this mean? Cognitive activities including decision making, inhibition and self-monitoring are heavily impacted when substance abuse interacts with this area of the brain causing dysfunction. This sets the stage for altered behaviors in response to stress and, plays a major part in the continued use of drugs or alcohol by

“providing an emotional reward for continued use,”

according to the American Psychological Association.

The way that the brain is impacted by addiction varies for each person. No two addicts are alike just as no two people, in general, are alike. In a recent study reported in the journal of Neuropsychologia, drug abusers were tested for their decision-making abilities and the study found that addicts made poor decisions compared to a control group. The study further showed three types of addicts:

  • Those who are not heavily impacted cognitively by addiction and who seem to show no decision-making impairment because of substance abuse. (this group is about 1/3 of the population)
  • Those who respond by immediately choosing the option with a higher reward despite knowing that the strategy will be troublesome in the long run. (this makes up about 25% of the population)
  • Those who are hypersensitive to rewards regardless of the immediate or long-term reward potential. (this accounts for about 40% of the population)

This suggests that some are at greater risk of becoming addicted than others. The group with the least cognitive impact are less likely to struggle with relapse while the group that is hypersensitive to rewards is at greatest risk of addiction and long-term impairment.

The Stigma of Addiction

Parents don’t want to admit that their children are addicts because they don’t want to be shunned for poor parenting or a lack of upbringing. Siblings avoid discussing a loved one’s addiction because they don’t want to be “tied” to the problem in the common “guilty by association” theory. Husbands and wives avoid discussing a spouses addiction out of fear of being looked down on by their peers. And such, the stigma of addiction plays on.

What people tend to “think” about an addict:

  • They are morally incorrect and just don’t care.
  • They were not brought up right by their parents.
  • They didn’t have parents.
  • They will lie, cheat, steal or hurt loved ones to get what they want.
  • They can change, but they choose not to.
  • They make the choice to stay high and don’t care about what others think.
  • They are irresponsible.
  • They are incapable of love, respect, or proper self-care.
  • They just want to get high.

What the reality is about addicts:

  • Many WANT to get sober but just don’t know where to start.
  • They are often overwhelmed and scared.
  • They are usually tired of addiction just like their loved ones are, but they don’t know what to do to stop it.
  • They have tried to get sober but their efforts have failed due to lack of treatment resources, lack of support or a mere lack of knowledge on what they “should” do to treat their disease.
  • They are depressed, miserable, and hopeless because they are stigmatized.
  • They are often afraid to tell people about their addiction (which IS a disease) because they KNOW the stigma that will come from being labeled an addict.
  • They need help, and they want help, but the help is not always available to them when they need it.
  • They often seek treatment, but expenses are too much and support is too low to get the help they need.

Stopping the Stigma

If your son had asthma, would you take him in for treatment? How about if mom had cancer? Would you get her help? Absolutely you would!

reduce shame and stigma and improve addiction recoveryBut when someone is an addict, the first instinct is to label them – “an addict.” So many of us are inclined to place this stigma and look the other way or worse, point fingers. But nobody points fingers at the woman who finds out she has breast cancer and requires radiation therapy in order to survive or the man who has diabetes and requires insulin to live.

So why do we point fingers at the heroin addict that chooses medication-assisted therapy (MAT) to survive? Why do we point fingers at the mom who is addicted to painkillers and just wants to get sober for her kids? Why point fingers when a disease is impacting someone’s life no matter WHAT the disease is?

Why are more than 40% of individuals surveyed opposed to granting health benefits to those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol so that THEY too can receive treatment for this disease just as the individual with diabetes or asthma receives beneficial coverage? Why do 65% of employers state that they believe they SHOULD be allowed to deny employment to those who have been impacted by addiction? Why do people with addiction get treated like they aren’t human and don’t need help?

Social support and inclusion in daily routines and lifestyle activity is necessary for recovery, yet employers, healthcare professionals and the general population as a whole are stigmatizing addiction making it harder and harder for those who ARE addicted to overcome the challenges posed by this deadly disease and come out on top.

But we can all come together to stop the stigma of addiction. Some of the stigma is beginning to dissipate as more people discuss their addiction crisis with the world and make public notice of the fact that it’s not ONLY people who are homeless that are dealing with addiction. Addiction impacts one in three people either directly or indirectly.

Society must adapt to the premise the addiction IS a disease and it DOES require professional treatment. Society must also become more inclusive of those who are struggling with addiction by providing opportunities for change and by providing second, third and even fourth chances to those who are TRYING to change.

Buffalo Judge Sets a Positive Example

Setting a positive example and changing the stigma towards addiction sets the stage for recovery. You can’t recover without support and you can’t get support from people who think addiction is your choice or your weakness in life. Providing opportunities for change to those who are struggling is a step that many individuals in society are simply not willing to give to an “addict.”

Buffalo, NY judge helps addictsBut opportunity for change is just what one judge is providing in Buffalo, NY where the opioid crisis has hit hard much like other states in the U.S. Instead of putting users in jail, a new drug court program places heroin and long-term opiate abusers into treatment for their addiction offering a second chance and the ability to reduce charges and sentences by choosing to enter treatment and get clean.

Although this sounds like standard drug court, Judge Hannah, “who resides over the first-in-the-nation experiment that aims to fast-track addicts into wraparound treatment before adjudicating their criminal cases,” says that he wants these “criminals” these “addicts” to be treated like the HUMANS that they are. Perfectly imperfect, and ready for change, those entering opiate court in Buffalo are channeled into a recovery program as an alternative to jail, but not just because this is how drug court works, but because Judge Hannah wants these individuals to see another holiday, to experience another family event and to live a life free from drugs and alcohol—and he’s willing to work night and day to make sure he makes a difference in the world by reducing the stigma that surrounds addiction.

Here’s how YOU too can contribute to stopping the stigma that surrounds addiction:

  • Offer a helping hand to those who are affected by addiction. This doesn’t mean you act as a supporter of the problem, but it means you provide access to employment if you’re an employer; you provide education and support if you’re a counselor or family member; you provide respect if you’re just an acquaintance or someone who meets an addict on the street.
  • When you meet someone who has a stigmatized mindset towards addiction, talk to them about the science behind the condition and the fact that addiction IS a disease not a weakness.
  • Do what you can to support the educators, resource providers and treatment specialists that work with addicted individuals. Help them to help others.
  • Get social! Offer education, support, and positive presentations on social media and within your community to help others understand the disease. Increasing awareness of addiction being recognized as a disease rather than a weakness can create positive change within your community. Even if you change the mindset of one person think of all the others that can be impacted down the line.

Eliminating the stigma surrounding addiction can reduce the guilt and shame that those struggling with this disease are suffering from. This also encourages individuals in need to seek help instead of encouraging them to hide out of fear of what others will think of them. If we all work together, and everyone does a small part to reduce the shame that is felt by those who are struggling with addiction, we can expect to see increased admissions into treatment and a reduction in the number of addiction cases reported each year.

How Inpatient Drug Rehab Can Help

group therapy helps addicts in inpatient rehabEvidence suggests that cravings can trigger abnormal activities and behaviors. Even when drugs or alcohol are NOT present, addiction can create triggered responses that that are not ideal for the user. Drug rehab helps by offering a safe place for recovery without the potential for relapse during the early stages when the brain must be rewired to appropriately respond to stress without an opportunity for relapse.

Inpatient rehab centers help to:

  • Reduce the stigma that family and friends may have regarding addiction by providing family therapy options to include your loved ones in treatment and help them to learn more about how addiction impacts the brain and the reward system.
  • Define the long-term consequences of drug use and help you and your loved ones to understand how these consequences impact the thought processes that occur when you are subjected to stress or other triggers.
  • Provide support for the trauma that occurs as a result of having been stigmatized and seen as an addict versus a human with a disease.
  • Offer guidance for family to help them understand how they can help you get well through support, shared opportunities in counseling and interventional therapy.
  • Reduce the shame that has surrounded you because of your addiction by teaching you how to recognize the addiction as a disease that you have control over but which requires treatment in a professional setting.
  • Offering a plan for relapse just as a doctor would provide a relapse plan to an individual receiving treatment for asthma, diabetes or cancer.