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Addiction Stigma: Dangers, Reducing Stigma, and Substance Abuse Treatment

Individuals with a substance use disorder—the clinical diagnosis for an addiction—sometimes feel shame or internalize the disease as a moral failing due to long-standing stigma associated with the disease of addiction.

A stigma is an attribute, behavior, or condition that is socially discrediting.1 Unfortunately, addiction stigma can do incredible harm, as it is known to decrease treatment-seeking behaviors in individuals with substance use disorders.

In this article, you will gain an in-depth look at the stigma around addiction, facts about addiction, dangers surrounding the stigma of addiction, how to help a loved one struggling with addiction, and ways to cope with addiction stigma.

What Is the Stigma of Addiction?

Stigma refers to discrimination against a particular group of people, identifiable by a common nation, place, condition, or other attribute.1 Some people have a stigma against those with a substance use disorder (SUD) because of inaccurate and outdated beliefs about addiction that perpetuated harmful stereotypes, assumptions, and negative attitudes.2

The label used to describe a stigmatized group is sometimes perceived as a judgment that is clouded by this stigma. For example, when we call someone an “addict” or a “substance abuser”—versus describing someone as “a person with a substance use disorder”—we are labeling them when, in fact, they are struggling with a diagnosable disease.2 Despite advancements in our understanding of addiction and mental illness, both are stigmatized health conditions.3

Many individuals continue to wrongly view SUDs as an inherent character flaw or moral failing.3 Unfortunately, this way of thinking can discourage individuals from seeking treatment and may even dissuade some medical professionals from treating individuals with SUDs.3

The Facts Behind Addiction

Despite the stigma surrounding addiction, it is in fact a treatable, chronic medical condition that consists of an intricate exchange between genetics, the environment, brain circuits, and life experiences.4

Addiction is diagnosed by mental health professionals as a substance use disorder. Drugs and alcohol impact the way neurons in the brain send and receive messages through neurotransmitters, which leads to abnormal communications being sent throughout the brain and body.5

Substances impact the areas of the brain that are responsible for life-sustaining functions, such as motivation and the ability to solve problems and make decisions.5 The misinformation being sent throughout the brain also contributes to the compulsive use of substances.5 More specifically, substances like drugs and alcohol can release, signal, or activate the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Dopamine is associated with the way we perceive pleasure and reward, but it also plays a role in reinforcing behavior. Thus, increased dopamine activity from substance use not only results in feelings of intense euphoria and pleasure, but at the same time, it also reinforces a compulsion to repeat the behavior of using the substances.5

Risk Factors for Developing an Addiction

Anyone who uses drugs or drinks alcohol can develop a SUD, but not everyone who uses drugs or alcohol will develop a SUD. Years of research has revealed certain risk factors that make a person more vulnerable to developing a SUD. These risk factors include:6

  • Having parents who use drugs or alcohol.
  • Having parents who have a mental illness.
  • Experiencing childhood trauma, including mistreatment and abuse.
  • Inadequate supervision in childhood.
  • Lack of family support.
  • Violence in your community.
  • Poverty.
  • Lack of economic opportunity.
  • Being a victim of racism or bias.

Millions of people across the country struggle with SUDs. Research shows that in 2021:7

  • 2.2 million people (8.5%) aged 12–17 had a SUD within the past year.
  • 8.6 million people (25.6%) aged 18–25 had a SUD within the past year.
  • 35.5 million people (16.1%) aged 26 and older had a SUD within the past year.

Dangers Surrounding the Stigma of Addiction

The stigma of addiction can result in harmful and dangerous consequences. Stigma can be a major deterrent for individuals struggling with SUDs who may want to get help to stop using substances.3 Research has found that 90% of those with SUDs do not receive the help that they need.3 Additionally, people who perceive high stigma around SUDs are half as likely to receive help for their disorders due to a desire to avoid being stigmatized.3

Healthcare providers treating mental illness and substance misuse may stigmatize their patients struggling with addiction. More specifically, bias among healthcare professionals can negatively impact their willingness to offer appropriate care.3

Many individuals with mental illnesses or SUDs internalize stigma, which is also known as self-stigma.3 When stigma is internalized, it can decrease a person’s self-esteem and belief in their ability to overcome addiction, which, in turn, makes them less interested in getting help.3 Individuals may hide their problems or deny their mental health problems or SUDs.

In summary, addiction stigma can:2

  • Decrease the willingness of individuals struggling with mental illnesses and SUDs to get the help they need.
  • Negatively impact the perceptions of healthcare workers, which can influence the care and treatment they provide to individuals struggling with SUDs and mental illnesses.
  • Create feelings of anger, pity, and fear in individuals without SUDs that can lead to detachment from individuals with SUDs.

How to Reduce the Stigma of Addiction

One of the most effective ways that you can help reduce the stigma around SUDs is by educating yourself on the disease. Most often, stigmas are created and perpetuated by misinformation and assumptions that are not fact-based.2 Treating everyone with respect and dignity can be impactful in reducing stigma and, in turn, can even help encourage those struggling with addiction to get the help they need.2

Furthermore, being aware of the language you use to describe addiction and SUDs is essential in reducing stigma, as your words can impact the way people with SUDs are perceived.2

Addiction Stigma and Language

Language is a major element in the perpetuation of addiction stigma. Recent research shows that language choice significantly impacts a health professional’s approach to treating individuals with SUDs.3 For example, doctors were more likely to favor treatment for individuals described as having “substance use disorders” and more likely to favor punishment (jail time) for individuals labeled “substance abusers.”3

Other labels that perpetuate addiction stigma include:3

  • Addict.
  • Abuser.
  • Alcoholic.

Using person-centered language as opposed to labels can help reduce stigma.3 Person-centered language references a SUD or mental illness as 1 aspect of a person’s life—not the person themselves.3 It is important to remember that individuals who struggle with SUDs are more than the SUD; they are not the disease, and the disease does not define them.

Examples of person-centered language include:3

  • A person with alcohol use disorder as opposed to an alcoholic.
  • An individual with a substance use disorder as opposed to an addict.
  • A person with a drug use disorder as opposed to a drug addict.

Coping With the Stigma of Addiction

If you think that someone you love may be struggling with a SUD, there are things you can do to help. Loving someone struggling with a SUD can leave you feeling powerless, and knowing how to talk to your loved one can feel challenging and overwhelming.

Strategies to help you talk to your loved one include:8

  • Pick a time to speak to your loved one when they are sober.
  • Use “I” statements such as “I think” or “I feel” to express how you feel.
  • Educate yourself and provide facts.
  • Ask if you can attend a doctor’s or therapy appointment.
  • Encourage and attend sober activities.
  • Provide resources on recovery and treatment.
  • Encourage your loved one to attend therapy and other recovery activities such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings; offer to drive them if they need it.
  • Be patient and remember that change takes time.
  • Attend family therapy and other supportive activities with your loved ones.
  • Take care of yourself physically and mentally.
  • Attend support groups for yourself that can include Al-Anon and Nar-Anon.

Drug and Alcohol Addiction Treatment

If you or a loved one is struggling with a SUD, time is of the essence. Help is available to you, and you shouldn’t wait to get the help you need. Identifying options for treatment can help your loved one feel empowered. American Addiction Centers (AAC) offers comprehensive treatment in facilities across the country.

Research has found that substance use disorder treatment has many benefits:9

  • Safely and effectively detoxing from substances.
  • Reducing drug and alcohol cravings.
  • Learning skills necessary to live a life without substances.
  • Preventing relapse through recognizing, coping with, and avoiding situations that can increase the risk of relapse.
  • Improving overall family functioning through family therapy.
  • Increasing a person’s social support system.

Don’t wait another day to get the help that you need and take the first step to overcome addiction. American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading treatment provider and has trusted rehab programs across the country. Please call us free at to speak with a compassionate admissions navigator. Your call is 100% confidential and our representatives can answer questions about treatment, verify your health insurance coverage, and help you begin the recovery process.

Additional Resources on Health Insurance Providers and Coverage Levels

Visit the links below to find out more about your health insurance coverage levels, how to get your insurance company to pay for drug and alcohol rehab, and how to pay if you don’t have insurance.

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