The Need to Humanize Addiction

Addict meeting looking aside.

When we look at significant illnesses like cancer, diabetes, MS, heart conditions, dementia, Alzheimer’s, and so on, our hearts go out to those who struggle with such illnesses. We feel strongly for them and for the struggles they inevitably face. We are more or less unified in how we think about those diseases and the persons on which such illnesses prey.

But in stark contrast, when we look at addiction and those who struggle with a substance abuse habit, our viewpoints become less uniform. Some people consider addiction a genetic thing. Some view addiction as a disease. Some view it as a poor moral choice. Others see it as something in between.

Rather than arguing back and forth about addiction, we need to all agree that this is a terrible, life-threatening affliction that millions of Americans struggle with on a daily basis.

We need to see that these people get effective help, not just incarcerating them or slandering them. The more we argue and stigmatize the subject of addiction, the further we stray from applying real solutions to our addiction crisis. In the following paragraphs, we’ll take a look at how we can humanize the terrible condition that is an addiction.

Remove the Labels and Stigma

Many strategies and methods for reducing a drug problem have been developed. We can:

  • Reduce the supply of drugs.
  • Monitor the disbursement of pharmaceuticals through Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs.
  • Reverse drug overdoses with Narcan (naloxone).
  • Utilize addiction treatment programs.
  • Make use of prevention programs.
  • Reduce public interest in drugs by educating the populace about the risks of drug use.
  • Better educate “Health Care Professionals” on drug abuse and the signs and treatment of patients with drug problems.

But what if we started merely by reducing the labels attached to addiction? If we could only show dependence as a human problem, we’d go a long way in bringing our people closer to understanding addiction. Addiction is not an esoteric illness. It’s not a criminal tendency. It’s not a disease of the body. Addiction is merely a severe affliction that hurts a person both physically and mentally. The sooner we can recognize that and agree on it, the sooner we can all get behind real solutions to addiction like those listed above.

But first, we have to humanize addiction.

Increase Education for Primary Care Providers and the Public

Nurses getting educated.

One way to humanize addiction above and beyond merely removing the labels attendant with it is to educate people about addiction. This goes for the laypeople and medical experts alike. Currently, there is a lack of public understanding about addiction. Most people don’t know what addiction is all about, how it occurs, how it influences people, how those afflicted can break free from it, and so forth.

When people understand the intricacies and nuances of something, they are less likely to demonize it. This is the route we need to take with addiction. We need our doctors to understand the affliction better, and we need the average American to know the complexities and intricacies behind a drug habit.

Education saves us, every time. In the words of Noam Chomsky,

“The answer to that (drug addiction) is not throwing people in jail. The answer is to try and figure what’s going on in their lives, their family, do they need medical care and so on? This very striking decline in substance abuse among educated sectors, as I said, goes across the spectrum — red meat, coffee, tobacco, everything. That’s education. It wasn’t that there was an educational program that said to stop drinking coffee, it’s just that attitudes toward oneself and towards health, how we live and so on, changed among the more educated sectors of the population, and these things went down.”

Focus on Treatment as the Solution, Not Incarceration

To humanize addiction, we need to push for treatment as the solution, not incarceration. When we incarcerate addicts, we automatically label them as criminals who made a criminal choice, not poor, luckless souls who are struggling with a terrible habit. To humanize addiction and to ever hope to steer our nation away from labeling addicts as criminals, we have to prioritize treatment over imprisonment whenever possible.

We Humanized HIV/AIDS. We Can Humanize Addiction

Here’s an anecdote that shows us what we are capable of when we humanize something that we used to have very little compassion for.

Back in the early 1990s, the United States was struggling with an epidemic of HIV/AIDS. It got so bad that the average life span of the American people dropped slightly. That was the first time such an event had occurred since the Vietnam War.

A lot of people were dying from HIV/AIDS, and patients with such illnesses were more or less isolated from society. The stigma that went with an HIV/AIDS diagnosis was harsh.

“The less we stigmatized AIDS patients and their loved ones, the more we were able to focus on the disease. It’s time to do the same thing with substance use, misuse, abuse, addiction, and the current opioid epidemic.”

But we pushed through, and we resolved the HIV/AIDS crisis. One of the first steps we took was to reduce the stigma and negative associations connected to HIV/AIDS. According to a great article at KevinMD, “The less we stigmatized AIDS patients and their loved ones, the more we were able to focus on the disease. It’s time to do the same thing with substance use, misuse, abuse, addiction, and the current opioid epidemic.”

Dr Sandeep Kapoor
Dr. Sandeep Kapoor

Dr. Sandeep Kapoor, the author who wrote the above, made several comparisons of the 1990s HIV/AIDS crisis to the current drug addiction epidemic. He makes good sense. For example, the doctor talks about changing our language regarding addiction (like we did with the AIDS crisis). For the longest time, we stigmatized HIV/AIDS patients as being sexually promiscuous, risky, foolhardy, unfaithful, and so on.

Also according to Dr. Kapoor, “First off, let’s change our language. Words matter and they can make or break opportunities to empathize, partner, and support. Just as we don’t call people struggling with obesity ’fat,’ let’s shift our verbiage to humanize addiction. Instead of using dehumanizing words, use proper, person-centric terminology—people dealing with addiction. They deserve compassion and treatment.”

Kind words, and accurate. We completely turned the HIV/AIDS crisis around, and a big part of that came from merely changing the way we think about HIV/AIDS. It’s time to do the same with drug addiction. It’s time to humanize addiction and to treat addicts with the respect and compassion they need. Only then can we truly offer a helping hand to them.


Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, MCAP, LADC, 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.