Fighting Back against the Stigma of Addiction

 Untreated drug and alcohol use contributes to tens of thousands of deaths every year and affects the lives of many more people. We have effective treatments, including medications for opioid and alcohol use disorders, that could prevent a significant number of these deaths, but they are not being utilized widely enough, and people who could benefit often do not even seek them out. One important reason is the stigma around those with addiction.

Stigma is a problem for people with health conditions ranging from cancer and HIV to a variety of mental illnesses, but it is especially powerful in the context of substance use disorders. Even though medicine long ago reached the consensus that addiction is a complex brain disorder, those with addiction continue to be blamed for their condition. The public, as well as many people working in health care and in the justice system, continues to view addiction as a result of moral weakness and flawed character.

Stigma on the part of health care providers who see patients' drug or alcohol problems as their own fault can lead to substandard care or even to the rejection of individuals seeking treatment. Staff in emergency departments, for instance, may be dismissive of addicted people because they do not view treating drug problems as part of their job. As a result, those showing signs of acute intoxication or withdrawal symptoms are sometimes expelled from the ER by staff who are fearful of their behavior or who assume they are only seeking drugs. People with addiction can internalize this stigma, feeling shame and refusing to seek treatment.

Read Article from Dr. Nora Volkow in Scientific American here