The Stigma of Addiction

by | Nov 11, 2020 | Addiction | 0 comments


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Although people struggling with addiction are encouraged to seek treatment, they don’t always do. This is mainly because addiction isn’t treated the way cancer or cardiovascular disease is treated. Much of this can be attributed to the stigma of addiction. One study from 2007 shows that 37 percent of college students avoided getting help for substance abuse due to this stigma. Addicts are usually ashamed of their drinking and drug-abusing habits, and they’re most likely afraid to come out. This stigma also makes an addict’s problems worse, increasing their feelings of anxiety and depression.

At Amethyst Recovery Center, we want to quash the stigma of addiction. We’ll talk about stigmas, how they develop, and how you can reduce them. Once addiction no longer has a stigma attached to it, more people will feel safer and more confident to reach out for help.

What is a Stigma?

Stigma is a negative belief held about certain practices or groups of people. Stigma is responsible for many issues related to exclusion and discrimination. People who have a stigma against them can feel “less than” and undeserving of help. Stigma is unfortunately unrelated to facts; rather, it’s based on speculation and untrue beliefs that have perpetuated over generations. 

How Does a Stigma Develop?

There are a few factors that contribute to a stigma’s development. Many people believe that people with mental illnesses are responsible for their condition, even though it’s not a choice. They’re also afraid of random acts of violence. Although this might happen occasionally, these aren’t usually frequent occurrences. For example, years ago people believed that those with mental illnesses were dangerous and violent. 

A good example of how a stigma develops is the end of the U.S. Civil War. Slave owners saw black people as “lesser than” and used them as property. Even after slavery ended in 1865, black people still faced discrimination. As a result, Southern states that sided with the Confederacy during the war enacted several Jim Crow laws, which perpetuated the “separate but equal” belief. These laws segregated many public facilities, including buses and bathrooms. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, almost 100 years after the end of slavery, that Jim Crow laws became illegal.

Why Does Addiction Have a Stigma?

There are many reasons why addiction has a stigma, but the main reason is that many people don’t understand it. It’s a common belief that people fear what they don’t know or comprehend. What many don’t realize is that addiction can happen to anybody, and it doesn’t discriminate among gender, income levels, or upbringing.

People with stigma toward addiction might feel uncertain about the disease’s outcome. Since there is no defined cure for substance use disorder, only management, they might hold it in a more negative light than diabetes. However, cancer also doesn’t have a defined cure and it doesn’t have nearly as much of a stigma.  

Below are a few of the main reasons why the stigma of addiction exists.


It’s no secret that about 40 to 60 percent of addicts relapse during their first year in recovery. The first few years of addiction recovery are difficult, as there are triggers all around that can tempt you. Addicts rely on a substance to function daily, so once they stop it’s difficult for them to start living life without it. 

The general population tends to believe that people with an addiction to alcohol can just stop drinking. However, this is not the case. Many factors go into addiction recovery, whether they be environmental or genetic. These triggers can set off anyone who is recovering from substance abuse. 

Like addicts, people with high blood pressure or diabetes also have high rates of relapse. However, addicts are judged more harshly when they relapse because people don’t understand the disease of addiction. 


Drug-related charges are highly criminalized in the U.S. since drug use is considered morally wrong. This goes for crimes like rape and murder as well. However, this kind of system can be damaging to substance abusers. Drugs are commonly associated with prostitution, violence, and drug trafficking. For addicts, though, abusing substances is not a choice. They must drink or do drugs frequently to function every day. 

Of the 2.3 million people in the U.S. sent to prison, more than 65% had a substance use disorder. Unfortunately, only 11% percent of them received any treatment for it.

To reduce the stigma of addiction, lawmakers must realize that addiction is an illness just like any other. Since drugs can change your brain chemistry, many people who commit crimes under the influence don’t realize that what they’re doing is wrong. Substances can also cause you to act compulsively, further explaining why they’ll commit crimes. 

People with an addiction who break the law must get help for their illness. Putting them in jail won’t make them stop doing bad things in the future. Licensed professionals must treat this illness so patients can get better and stay out of legal trouble.


Stigmatizing language can be detrimental to people recovering from an addiction or dealing with a mental illness. Those with substance use disorders may be referred to as “crackheads,” “junkies,” or “alcoholics.” This doesn’t help the abusers; it only perpetuates the stigma and hurts their self-esteem. The American Psychiatric Association has developed some more sensitive language people can use when referring to people with mental illnesses and/or substance use disorders.

Below is some hurtful language followed by its sensitive counterparts:

  • Addict: person with a substance use disorder
  • Addiction: substance use disorder
  • Alcoholic: person suffering from alcohol addiction
  • Clean: abstinent
  • Disabled/handicapped: person with a disability
  • Drug habit: regular substance use
  • Mental health patient: is receiving mental health services
  • Mentally ill/crazy/psycho: has a mental health challenge
  • Mentally retarded: has an intellectual disability

Effects of an Addiction Stigma

Stigma is one of the primary reasons why drug abusers avoid addiction treatment. Stigma negatively affects the following:

  • Mental health and self-esteem
  • Willingness to get treatment
  • Harm reduction

Untreated addiction costs the U.S. about $510 billion annually, with these costs relating to criminal justice, lost productivity, and healthcare. The stigma of addiction can greatly affect a person’s quality of life and how they’re viewed in society. It can also affect the person’s relationships and 

People with a substance use disorder feel discriminated against, and this impacts their mental and social health as a result. In response, they might hide their drug use from their doctors to avoid being told they have a substance abuse problem. Damage to social and mental health can also result in even further drug use, which can send you down an irreversible path. 

On top of that, people with substance use disorder can bury their stigma inside. This can cause them to view themselves as abnormal or “freaks.” They might feel like they have a lack of self-control or are immoral. We must make it known that these people aren’t bad; they’re just sick and they need help for their disorder.

How the Stigma of Mental Illness Ties In

Addiction isn’t the only disorder that has a stigma. Mental illnesses are also highly stigmatized, with many of those afflicted not receiving the help they need. Some people assume that those with mental illnesses are dangerous and violent. In reality, there are plenty of people with mental health disorders who are functioning members of society with careers and families. They also safely manage their disorders with medication or therapy.   

Unfortunately, the stigma of mental illness can prevent many people from receiving the treatment they need. Also, those with both a mental illness and a substance use disorder (co-occurring disorders) can be doubly stigmatized. 

There are two types of mental health stigma:

  • Social stigma: This is how groups of people perceive an individual who has a mental health disorder based on psychiatric labels.
  • Perceived/self-stigma: This is what happens when people afflicted internalize the stigma they’ve received. As a result, they don’t seek treatment and feel ashamed of their condition.

Social stigma and perceived/self-stigma both contribute to low self-esteem in people with mental health disorders. Surprisingly, stigma directed toward teens with mental illness mostly comes from people close to them: peers, teachers, and family members

How to Reduce the Stigma of Addiction

Reducing the stigma of addiction (and also that of mental health) requires much work and dedication. However, with enough effort, it can be done. By eliminating stigma, you can influence others to get the help needed for their substance use disorder or mental illness. This can also result in a better society for everyone.  

If each of us does our small part in helping reduce it, we can make addiction a more accepted illness. Below are a few ways that you can help in reducing stigma, not just that of addiction:

  • Treating people afflicted with substance use disorders with respect and decency
  • Avoiding hurtful language and labels
  • Looking at the person as a whole and not just his or her drug use
  • Supporting mental health and addiction resources
  • Offering support and compassion to people with substance abuse issues
  • Learning about substance use disorder and drug dependency
  • Countering misinformation on substance abuse with facts 

Educational programs can play huge parts in reducing the stigma of addiction and mental illness. When people learn about these diseases, they’ll better understand them. Understanding leads to acceptance, which means more people will receive addiction treatment. It’s our responsibility to reduce the stigmas of addiction and mental illness so that we can create a better world. 

Get Treatment for Addiction at Amethyst Recovery Center Today

Our staff at Amethyst Recovery Center understands that addiction is a sickness that can be treated. We want to work with others to reduce the stigma of addiction and get people the help they need. If you or a loved one is struggling with a substance use disorder and/or a mental illness, contact us today. Our representatives will walk you through our treatment process and help you determine the best course of action. Don’t hesitate to pick up the phone! 



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