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Breaking the Stigma

Addiction is not a moral failing. It is a chronic brain disease that is stigmatized by society

We need to get the conversation going and break the stigma surrounding addiction. Created by: Jill Nawoyski

Addiction is Not a Moral Failing

The stigma of addiction has prevented hundreds of people with a substance use disorder from getting the treatment they need. Treatment is effective, but somehow the stigma has made it seem counterproductive. If communities can take the proper steps to reduce the stigma, the amount of individuals who get treatment could eventually increase if the awareness of the problem at it’s core is addressed.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in 2015, more than 21.7 million people aged 12 and older needed substance abuse treatment. But, only 10.8 percent of people aged 12 or older that needed treatment received treatment at a specialty facility.

According to NIDA, there are over 14,500 specialized substance abuse treatment programs providing a variety of care methods. Stigma is one of the major barriers that influence the gap between addiction and treatment.

Normally, without prevention, the stigma results in prejudice or avoidance linked attitudes against people that engage in certain behaviors, like drug use.

How do we reduce the stigma?

“I think the focus really needs to be on the generation growing up right now because if we focus too much on say my generation or your generation, we’ve lost an immense opportunity to educate and inform people growing up in our society today,” Sean Rodgers, Regional Outreach coordinator for humble beginnings recovery centers, said.

“They are growing up in the largest public health crisis ever, so we need to educate and inform the next generation coming up and let them know that it’s okay to ask for help. I think that’s how we bust stigma,” Rodgers said. “Substance use disorder is not a moral failing. It’s an actual disease and it needs to be treated properly and  we need to let people know that it’s okay to ask for help and say ‘look, I might have a problem here’ or ‘look, I might need to take a look at this.’”

We can reduce the stigma by changing the conversation when it comes to discussions about addiction. By educating ourselves, learning to use the correct terminology and by speaking up about the importance of breaking the stigma, the conversation will change.

Educate yourself and become an expert

In order to speak up and actually understand how and why addiction is a brain disease, one must learn the facts first. There is an abundance of public health studies and scientific research studies that confirm that addiction is a brain disease and that treatment is effective. Stigma is not based on facts, it is based on assumptions. By educating one’s self, they can lessen the negative impact created by the stigma.  

“Well, I think it starts with education,” Brandt Norton, lead outreach coordinator at Behavior Wellness Recovery, said. “Because so many people have this stigma against people with mental health and addiction issues, I think a lot of it is because they don’t understand it and because they need to get educated more on the fact that it is a disease and that people are fighting addiction and that it really goes beyond their control at a certain point. So, yes, it might have started with a choice, but at the end of the day, it becomes more of an instinct to survive.”

Use the right language associated with addiction

A lot of people are unaware that someone with an addiction should not be called an “addict” or a “junkie.” The reference should be to a person with a substance use disorder instead of the stigmatizing references. Additionally, if someone is arrested for a drug violation, you should say that instead of calling them a “drug offender.”

A lot of people have this idea in their mind that the drug user or person who is addicted is a low life degenerate type of person who has never worked or been a productive member of society and that is absolutely not true,” Kathy Muller, Project Coordinator at, said. “There are people at all walks of life who have addiction issues.”

Speak up

Even if one informs themselves about the ways to reduce the stigma, there is a long way to go from there. In order to be an engaged citizen, one should raise awareness to close family members and friends and get the conversation going.

“We want to break the stigma. It’s okay to have a problem and to be in recovery for it, so I talk about my addiction all the time,” Katie Burlingame, program coordinator at New Leaf Club, said. “I don’t have a problem with it because I didn’t die from it, but there are people dying on a daily basis and it stinks. So I try to talk about it as much as I can.”

One can spread the message even further by speaking in a school or community event.

“We are really working to reduce the stigma of drug use with the idea of drug use with our one theme of ‘anyone can become addicted,’” Kathy Muller, Project Coordinator at PA Stop, said. “The person that can be affected could be your aunt, neighbor, daughter, boss. It could be anyone.”

Written by: Jaclyn Labes

The stigma towards addiction in our society is often the reason those in need of treatment do not receive it. Created by Jaclyn Labes