Stigma Makes Addiction Treatment Difficult For Many

Young Man, Behind a Fence, Stigma of Addiction
Overcoming addiction in America begins with reducing the stigma connected to addiction and providing real help to those who are addicted to drugs and alcohol — not treating them as criminals. Photo: xijian / iStock by Getty Images 

Because drug and alcohol addiction is often accompanied by illegal behavior, addicts are often seen as criminals. They are breaking the law, after all. And because addicts sometimes act aggressively and lie, steal, or cause damage to those around them, people affected by addicts may get the idea that drug abuse is simply a poor life choice that causes addicts to behave immorally.

The critical factor that is often forgotten is that addiction is a complicated affliction of the mind, body, and soul. Yes, addiction can result in addicts doing bad things, but that does not make them bad people. It is not a criminal inclination or an immoral, opportunistic endeavor to be a drug addict. Being a drug addict is an almost inescapable crisis that will cause someone to do just about anything to get drugs again.

While taking that first drink or drug IS a personal choice, no one chooses to become addicted. Addiction in many ways can be seen as a process where one loses his or her own free will. It's a slide from freedom to overwhelming compulsion. This slippery slope is made more difficult when the individuals suffering from it are viewed as criminals.

Overcoming addiction in America begins with reducing the stigma connected to addiction and then treating those who struggle with it.

The Harm Caused by Addiction Stigma

The half-a-century long War on Drugs helped create a particularly harmful addiction stigma in this country. However, much of the addiction stigma of today is simply the result of a lack of understanding of what addiction is. Most people don't know that addiction is not something anyone has taken on by choice. Most people don't get that addiction is not a question of morality but rather a severe problem that the individual cannot overcome on their own.

This misunderstanding of addiction creates further barriers to solving the crisis. For example, stigma makes it even less likely that addicts will get help. For the American people to finally remedy the addiction crisis that the country currently faces, it will take a dedicated effort to remove addiction stigma while at the same time not allowing for a permissive, accepting attitude towards drug use.

Stigma slows treatment efforts and causes people to underestimate the actual severity of addiction. People who believe that addiction is a choice, that addiction is a moral failing or simply a matter of “being irresponsible” are less likely to take addicts seriously, less likely to do everything in their power to help addicts get better. Furthermore, an addict who experiences stigma is more likely to experience painful isolation and to continue using drugs. Conversely, if the American people go the opposite direction and drop their stigma and instead adopt a permissive attitude towards addiction, more people will use drugs as there will be less societal pressure not to.

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, wrote an article on addiction stigma and how stigma directly affects whether or not addicts are able to get better. In her words, “Stigma not only impedes care delivery, it also most likely causes us to underestimate the burden of substance use disorders in the population. But stigma plays an even larger role in this crisis, one that has been less discussed: when internalized, stigma and the painful isolation it produces encourage further drug taking, directly exacerbating the disease.”

Permissiveness Towards Drug Use is Not An Option

Permissive Use of Drugs is Not the Answer
Permissiveness towards drug use is not the answer. sturti/iStock by Getty Images

While reducing and removing stigma is critical to resolving America’s drug problem, it is just as important not to take this the other direction and become permissive about drug use. Yes, it is wrong to vilify addicts, to treat them as bad people, or to incarcerate them for drug addiction. But it is just as harmful to stand idly by and accept a loved one's drug use as a supposed “normal” part of life.

Addiction can never be seen as usual or “okay,” or it will undoubtedly result in a spike in drug use, more people addicted, and more lives lost. It follows, then, that Americans have to reduce addiction stigma to make treatment more available and to encourage addicts to get treatment. But at the same time, they must not become permissive or accepting of drug use. They must demand that addicts get help.

Seeking Treatment for a Loved One

There is no doubt that stigma causes harm. When addicts are made to feel poorly about their substance abuse, they are less likely to get help, and they are more likely to continue using drugs. That's why it is even more critical to get addicts help as soon as possible.

Do you know someone who is struggling with an addiction to drugs and alcohol? If so, it is of the utmost importance that they get into a drug and alcohol rehab center as soon as possible. Addiction is a highly dangerous, life-threatening crisis that claims tens of thousands of lives each year. Well over 100 people die in the United States every day from drug overdoses and drug-related accidents.

Addiction treatment at a qualified drug and alcohol rehab center is the only way to safely and effectively get off of drugs and alcohol for good. Trying to get clean on one's own rarely works and can be dangerous.

If someone in your life is hooked on mind-altering substances, please call Narconon today. Do not stereotype them, stigmatize them, or condemn them for their addiction. Instead, please do everything you can to get them the help that they need.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, MCAP, RAS



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.