There’s no doubt that drug addiction is stigmatized today, despite ongoing attempts by numerous agencies—including the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration—to demystify and de-stigmatize it.
At the same time, other cultural forces are pushing addiction farther into the realm of taboo. Reality TV shows turn drug and alcohol interventions and celebrity addiction treatment into sideshows, packed with drama and excitement, all of which are far from the reality of an actual, properly executed intervention or a high-quality, research-based addiction treatment program. These shows make it hard to take the grim realities of addiction and treatment seriously.
Politics has a hand in increasing the stigmatization of addiction as well. The push by legislators and the public alike to drug test welfare recipients further stigmatizes addicted individuals by making the assumption that people on drugs are poor and lazy and don’t deserve help.
On one hand, there’s no doubt that drug use is glamorized and even celebrated in popular culture, but on the other hand, our collective idea of someone with drug addiction as dark and dangerous, dirty and sick or homeless and mentally ill equally misrepresents the reality.
Addiction Doesn’t Discriminate
It’s very likely that you work with someone who has a drug addiction, or that you know someone who you would be very surprised to learn is addicted to prescription medication or illegal drug.
Heroin addiction is on the rise so dramatically in suburbs and rural areas that the New Jersey Governor’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse recently launched an ad campaign to bring awareness to the reality that no one is immune to drug abuse and addiction, no matter how well-educated or affluent they may be.
The Disease Model of Addiction
The directors of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recently co-authored a commentary published in The Lancet Psychiatry in which they make it clear that the disease model of addiction is strongly supported by scientific evidence.
The disease model states that addiction is caused by environmental, behavioral and genetic factors and is a chronic and relapsing disease of the brain that manifests biologically, psychologically, socially and spiritually.
Addiction is far more than a behavioral disorder. It changes the physical structures and functions of the brain, including the processes associated with the characteristic loss of control, inflexibility, negative emotional states and compulsive drug abuse that accompany addiction.
Like diabetes, cancer and other diseases, addiction doesn’t happen by choice, although the choice is involved in the initial decision to abuse a substance, just as the choice is involved in making the initial unhealthy lifestyle choices that contribute to diabetes, cancer and other diseases.
Also like other diseases, addiction involves cycles of remission and relapse. Once drug abuse has escalated to addiction, professional help is almost always necessary to successfully send the addiction into long-term remission.
Unfortunately, due to the stigma of addiction that still pervades American society, far too many people don’t get the help they need. This is particularly true of women, who are doubly penalized for addiction due to an unfair double standard. Women, after all, are supposed to be mothers, nurturers, gentle souls—not addicted to drugs.
What We Can Do
Until addiction is viewed as any other disease that requires professional intervention, it will be something too many people—and often their families as well—feel they have to hide for fear of being ostracized by the community, losing a job or suffering other negative consequences.
The State of New Jersey is on the right track, and other states are hitting the nail on the head. Massachusetts is launching its “State Without StigMA” campaign in an effort to make it easier for people to get help for a drug or alcohol addiction.
You can do your part by telling your elected representatives to treat drug addiction as a disease and not a burden on society punishable by the inability to get food stamps or other crucial government assistance, which can lead to more serious problems.
Consider boycotting reality shows that serve only to make addiction and treatment a spectator sport. Finally, avoid terms like “addict” and “junkie,” which essentially define a person by their addiction and carry highly negative and inaccurate connotations.
You can also help by advocating for someone you love who has an addiction. Let them know you care and that you believe she can overcome her addiction. Sometimes, hearing words of encouragement can help someone take that first crucial but decidedly difficult step in getting the help they need.