We know that substance abuse disorders carry a stigma. But when is a stigma something even worse?
Substance abuse has created a public health crisis in the United States, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labeling it an epidemic, comparable in significance to obesity or cancer. The issue is so dire that for the first time, the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office released a report last year on substance abuse and addiction.
The battle with addiction claims tens of thousands of American lives each year and affects millions more, including loved ones and families. So, why do we still treat substance abuse as a stigma or, worse yet, a character flaw?
The American Attitude Toward Addiction
The word “stigma” doesn’t properly address the way people with mental health issues such as addiction are treated in this country. Millions of Americans struggle with substance abuse – according to the Surgeon General’s report, some 21 million – and yet, those who suffer from addiction often feel like they’re wearing a scarlet letter.
Nearly 20 percent of American adults will experience a mental health disorder in any given year, yet only a quarter of those feel that others understand and empathize with their illness. While society might refer to this as a stigma, there’s a more accurate term: discrimination.
The ‘Fun-Gone-Wrong’ Defense
One of the biggest misconceptions society has about addiction is that those who struggle with substance abuse began their relationship with drugs to get high or to have a little fun. In truth, many substance use disorders are the result of comorbid mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, estimated that nearly 8 million Americans suffered from co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders in 2014.
The discrimination these individuals face is particularly evident when we consider that people with co-occurring disorders are statistically more likely to be homeless or in the criminal justice system than those who don’t suffer from these disorders.
In many cases, it’s the mental health issues that drive the addiction, which creates a vicious cycle that is nearly impossible to break without appropriate intervention. Those who suffer from co-occurring disorders require integrated, attentive health care to achieve a healthy and productive life again. Yet, statistics show that only 10 percent of people suffering from substance abuse get the help they need.
Addiction Affects Everyone
Those who struggle with addiction are often viewed as second-class citizens, but this attitude requires an adjustment. Substance abuse affects everyone, regardless of whether you know someone who struggles with addiction. Consider the following:
There’s a good chance you do know someone who is currently fighting substance abuse issues. Statistics show 66 million people admit to past-month binge drinking: That’s nearly one in four adults. An additional 12.5 million Americans admit to abusing prescription opioids. There’s a significant statistical likelihood that someone you know is struggling with addiction behind the scenes, under the veil of shame that society tends to place around substance abuse.
Even if you don’t personally know someone with a substance abuse or mental health problem, you’re still paying for it. Alcohol abuse alone costs U.S. taxpayers around $249 billion a year, and illicit drugs another $193 billion, according to the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office.
Substance Abuse Is Not a Moral Failing
There is a prevailing, inaccurate attitude in this country that addiction is the result of a moral failing or lack of resolve (or both). This outlook is dangerous because it results in more than just negative stereotyping. Perceiving addiction as a moral failing actively results in policies and expectations that make it more difficult for those with mental health challenges to overcome and succeed.
People with mental illness are statistically more likely to have run-ins with law enforcement than they are to receive access to medical help when they’re in the midst of a medical crisis, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Compound this with the fact there are currently more people with mental illness in jail than in hospitals, and we begin to see that the moral failing is not in those who struggle with substance abuse, but within ourselves.
Attitudes Can Change, Policies Can Change
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights defines discrimination as any action in which a person is treated less favorably than another “in a similar situation, for a reason related to a prohibited ground.” Given this definition, it’s easy to see that mental health and substance abuse disorders are not merely a stigma, but a source of discrimination. We, as a society, regard people with addiction differently. This attitude needs to change.
The fact remains that we shape public policy. Our attitudes turn into action: This is the linchpin of American democracy. If we demand equal treatment for those suffering from addiction and mental health disorders, these efforts turn into infrastructure and intervention plans. The current 10 percent treatment rate can grow, and more people who need access to premium care will get it.
The power to change the fabric of society begins within each person. Make the decision to end the stigma and discrimination surrounding those who struggle with substance abuse disorders.
The Treatment Center of the Palm Beaches has created a movement around ending the stigma surrounding addiction. The campaign calls for individuals to request a free #NoMoreShame wristband and then share their story of recovery from social media.
To learn more about the #NoMoreShame campaign, visit
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