Addiction Stigmatizing: The Other Battle

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People suffering from Substance Use Disorder (SUD) often have two battles to win: going through a treatment successfully and making full recovery. The second fight is subtle yet very lethal- the ‘drug addict’ being stigmatized by the society.

People seem to love using the ‘addict’ ‘alcoholic’ ‘former addict’ or ‘former alcoholic’ label for SUD patients or even those who have made full recovery and reintegrated to society because it satisfies their need to blame the individual, rather than the drug for the disease. It suggests that the person is the problem and dismisses the fact that the addiction is a neurological disorder, much in the same way as diabetes or cancer is a disease. It also ignores other underlying factors like trauma, genetics, or family environment.

But addiction stigmatization can be psychologically damaging to the people struggling with substance abuse. The consequent negative emotions could lead to a relapse for patients taking treatments in rehab homes as the ‘addict’ label can potentially overwhelm them with a feeling of guilt or failure. Stigmatization could also prevent people battling with drug use from seeking for help because they don’t want to live with that tag or be associated with it.

A survey conducted by the UK Mail underlines the public’s negative attitudes towards SUD patients, with 43% of respondents saying they would not want to be neighbours with a former addict. Only 41% said they may work with someone who had recovered from drug or alcohol abuse.

One in three of those who were polled said it would be foolish of anyone to think about going into a serious relationship with a former addict, even if the person had made full recovery. And more than 50% said they will not trust their baby with a recovered addict.

The result of research reported in the US Journal of Psychiatry showed that addiction comes with a high level of stigma, with the researchers questioning the persistence of this attitude by the public despite now accepting the fact that addiction is a brain disease.

If the field of clinical psychology could do away with stigmatizing terms like “autistic,” “schizophrenic”, or “manic-depressive,” why are people who are struggling with substance and alcohol abuse not referred to, for example, as “Person with a Substance Use Disorder” – in the same way as you have PLWHA (People Living with HIV/AIDS)?

There are people for whom the term “addict” works in reverse, helps them identify symptoms and issues, connects with others in a healthy way and generally motivates them to change. That’s fantastic but it’s just a small minority.

The society must begin to see SUD patients as people first instead of “addicts,” just like in the period before they developed an addiction; and just like people suffering with heart disease, diabetes, or depression are regarded as people during and after recovery.

The greater responsibility falls on the treatment community to a new, more accurate and more sensitive language that will encourage an effective treatment environment and fast, successful recovery for patients.

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