Stigmas and Stereotypes of Addiction

Stigmas and stereotypes are beliefs—often untrue—that unfairly set people apart and become reason for shame and embarrassment. People with addictions are often stigmatized and stereotyped as stumbling drunks or addicts shooting up in dark alleys, or as winos, crackheads, tweakers or junkies.

These societal beliefs present major challenges for people struggling with substance abuse and addiction, who often feel isolated and helpless. Even friends and family members may view addiction as a moral problem or a sign of weakness. Even though they mean well, they may think that addicted people can stop the behavior if they try hard enough.
The truth is, addiction is an illness that is never cured by willpower alone. It is a not a moral issue, and it does not indicate lack of character. Addiction can affect anybody of any age, gender, social status, income or family background.

Research indicates that brain chemistry is altered by drugs, alcohol and addictive behaviors such as gambling or sex. Brain images display clear differences in the brain’s limbic system, an area that governs pain and pleasure. The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) classifies addiction as a chronic, relapsing disease.

Stigmas and false beliefs stand in the way of recovery for addicted individuals in several ways:

  • Addicted people who are ashamed or embarrassed may avoid seeking help until the addiction reaches crisis proportions.
  • The stigma of addiction often creates difficulties with coworkers and employers, which may lead to job loss and severe financial problems.
  • Sometimes, physicians and other medical professionals ostracize people with substance abuse or addiction problems. Health care providers may fail to recognize addiction as a disease that can be treated.
  • Friends and family members tend to hide the problem and cover up for the addicted person. This enabling behavior reduces the chances for the person to honestly confront the illness, accept the consequences of the addictive behavior and seek treatment.
  • Instead of receiving treatment, addicted people are often sent to jail. A criminal record causes family problems, jeopardizes employment and often presents serious financial issues.
  • Stigmas are long-lasting and difficult to escape. A person with an addiction may be treated with suspicion and mistrust, even after completion of treatment.
  • Stigma and stereotypes discourage addicted people from seeking treatment. However, change will come only with education and greater understanding. At Paracelsus, we treat addiction and substance abuse in a caring, professional manner.

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