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How to break the stigma around addiction

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Written by Karen Pontious

Addiction has been given a label based on widespread misinformation and judgments. The resulting stigma causes us to wrongfully make assumptions about ourselves and those who suffer from addiction.

T.V. shows constantly depict the “wine mom” as a social norm, and we glamorize alcohol and drug consumption – until addiction joins the party.

This embedded stigma around addiction within our society needs to be addressed so we can have a more supportive community for those impacted by addiction.

Addiction Stigma: What are examples of stigma?

Stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, person or quality. Our society stigmatizes people who abuse alcohol or drugs and deems them as “morally flawed” or “weak.”

The stigma of addiction causes prejudice, exclusion and discrimination, creating isolating and unhealthy environment for people looking to get support.

Examples of stigma:

In a 2014 study by researchers at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that people tended to have negative feelings towards individuals with substance use disorders.

  • 64 per cent believed employers should be able to refuse employment to people with addiction.

  • 43 per cent opposed giving those with substance use disorders the same health insurance benefits offered to everyone else.

These are just a few examples of how prevalent addiction stigma is in our society, and why we need to come together to break the stigma.

Why is addiction stigmatized?

Issues around mental health have been ignored and stigmatized for years in Western society. Even though we now have better access to health care and resources, stigma remains rooted in our culture.

Drug abuse is the most stigmatized disorder in the world, with alcohol abuse following as the fourth most stigmatized.

The association of substance use with criminal behaviour further stigmatizes addiction disorders. Addiction is often considered a choice rather than a disorder, so people often believe addicts choose to be addicts. This misunderstanding of addiction is what isolates people suffering with addiction.

Language: Addiction-stigmatizing words

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Many words surrounding addiction are stigmatizing. The way we use language influences our understanding of things and forms either a positive or negative connotation. How we refer to people with a substance use disorder can impact people’s judgments or feelings towards them.

How does stigma affect people’s lives?

Stigma as a barrier to substance treatment

This stigma prevents us from getting to the root of why people suffer from addiction and makes society believe you should never make a mistake. This is an unrealistic belief and causes a greater problem for those who are starting to struggle with substance abuse.

Since addiction is stigmatized, a person with addiction becomes ashamed of themselves and may cause them to hide their addiction and prevent them from seeking the help that they need. The more we publicly vilify addiction and associate addiction as simply a moral defect or a crime, the more we become part of the problem.


Who is stigmatized most?

When it comes to addiction, some groups of people are stigmatized more than others:

  • Women (especially those who are pregnant or with children)
  • People using illegal drugs
  • Indigenous Peoples
  • People of lower socio-economic class

How can we combat stigma?

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Overcoming the stigma of addiction won’t happen overnight. But here are some suggestions for things you can do to stop addiction stigma to help build a more inclusive society:

Get informed and spread the message

  • Find credible resources on addiction, treatment and recovery
  • Join groups on social media.
  • Share any information on your social media and with your friends and family to create a more conscious community

 Tell your addiction story and get involved

  • People resonate with authentic stories. If you are someone recovering from addiction and feel comfortable telling your story, it could motivate and inspire others to either seek help or support those in need.
  • Get involved in the community and join any events or talks on the topic to build more connections. The more people supporting this cause the faster we can end addiction stigma.


Let’s stop addiction stigma

People who deal with addiction come from all walks of life. They are parents, youth, co-workers, neighbours, family and friends. The only reason our society shames addiction is because we don’t openly discuss how common and human this experience is.

Stigma can destroy self-esteem and relationships, make it harder to access treatment, jobs and housing, and leads to discrimination and isolation.

- Health Canada, 2018

By getting informed and educating our community we can work together to end addiction stigma.

Karen Portious

Karen Pontious is a professional communicator working on her dream to be a freelance writer and editor. She is currently completing a summer placement with Avalon Recovery Society.

Her passion is intercultural relations and communication. She writes about relationships, immigration stories, gender norms, and mental health.

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