The word stigma carries with it enormous adverse weight. Even if a person can’t verbalize its’ most concrete definition, when the word stigma is part of the conversation, negative connotations are immediate. In the world of recovery, there is an ongoing stigma attached to addiction that has been difficult to shake, even with changing perceptions and frameworks of understanding being more commonplace. In order to understand the stigma of addiction there needs to be a definition in place along with how that definition affects collective thought as a whole.
Definition of Stigma
A stigma can generally be seen as an unpleasant mark or sign, usually associated with disgraceful connotations. In a social context, stigma occurs when there is an extreme disapproval or disdain for a group of people based on a mores and standards that are considered different or marginal as defined by prevailing cultural norms. This occurs through labelling and stereotyping of in individual or group and as a consequence results in a loss of status and ultimately discrimination.
The Clash of Paradigms
The stigma of addiction, as stated earlier, is very difficult to break apart even as attitude and philosophies are changing. Organizations like the American Society and Addiction and The National Institute on Drug Abuse characterize addiction as a chronic brain disease that effects the memory, reward and motivational drives of a person. Even with the solid presence of the disease paradigm gaining traction, the stigma surrounding addiction has roots as a moral failing and a fatal weakness of individual character.
Upon closer inspection, there have been shifts in understanding of addiction. Instead of being shuffled off to institutions or psych wards, there are treatment facilities and halfway houses (and even transitional housing concepts) that deal with addiction. There are twelve-step programs that can help the addict connect with a broader recovery community as well as a higher power to promote transformation.
However, this movement and knowledge base has been relegated primarily to those professionals with specialization in the field of addiction and recovery and the recovery community and their support systems. In the broader cultural sense, the stigma of addiction still holds to its moral roots. The stigma of addiction is perpetuated by both language and terminology that carry negative connotations. These semantics further embed the stigma surrounding addiction in the cultural vernacular.
The Language of Perpetuation of the Stigma of Addiction
The language and underlying concepts used to describe addiction as a phenomenon and the addict as a being elicit strong and negative reactions and connotations. For example, we label the addict as a junkieor an abuser which leaves no separation between the individual and the disease of addiction. Further complicating the matter and reinforcing addiction as stigma can be the word disease itself. While the word disease, in general, states that a part of an organism’s body is impaired it has narrow but long-ranging consequence for the addict.
Many people are stuck on the notion that the addict has a moral or spiritual failing and will tag disease on those attributes when in fact there are also environmental and possibly genetic factors at play. There is also those perceptions of the addict or user in general. When the word addict is brought up many people will use words or phrases such as worthless, lazy, lack of willpower or initiative to “get better”. These connotations are shaped in large part by television shows, movies, and other media outlets. We often don’t see addiction with transformative outcomes—instead the spotlight is focused on the seedy, the unflattering and the graphic.
How Perceptions Shape Outcomes Thus Reinforcing the Stigma of Addiction
One of the more explicit outcomes due to labelling from stigma is that someone who is seeking help may decide not to seek treatment. Going to treatment for their addiction will label them as an addict and by proxy they will be seen as weak, having no willpower and so on. Admitting there is a problem can also perpetuate shame. With the ongoing “war on drugs”, there are those who feel that addicts need to be incarcerated and in general locked away. This attitude reinforces the blaming and moral roots of the stigma of addiction.
Even if people get the treatment and support they need, the outcomes of such intervention programs can be sketchy due to the fact that the culture of blame and shaming can exist. It is often heard in treatment about the possibility for relapse if one is weak and not resolute. People are extremely vulnerable when they enter treatment and while relapse can definitely be possible it may reinforce the negative aspects thus reinforcing the stigma of addiction.
After considerable time clean and sober, the recovering addict may still be haunted by the stigma of addiction due to issues of mistrust and suspicion. People may hear the maxim once an addict, always an addict. This maxim may not be uttered aloud, but it has definite underlying reverberations in the community they live in as well as family and social networks.
Ways to Combat the Stigma of Addiction
In order to combat the stigma of addiction, the education and knowledge shared in the recovery community and those support networks within that community must find its way to the population in general. Since there are medical, environmental and possible genetic threads found in addiction, the medical and psychiatric communities need to find common ground with the recovery community in order to find treatment solutions that cover that common ground.
Treatment facilities need to temper the language of relapse and weakness with that of recovery and hope. It is a reality that relapse is possible—however there should be a strong emphasis on empowerment and helping the addict to find his or her way through their addiction and allowing them say in their own treatment. Every addict has their own story and path that led to their addiction and may not respond well to a “one size fits all” approach.
The stigma of addiction can also be changed by allowing the recovering addict to share his or her story to a larger audience. As stated earlier, the stigma of addiction has been perpetuated by television, movies and mass media in general. Having a mass media culture that allows the recovering addict to share their story and message of hope and recovery under an unfiltered lens can show people that addiction is very real and can be overcome.
by Tim Powers
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