Tag Archives: chronic disease

Stigma of Addiction: Stop the Shame


How we treat people who have diseases which can be fatal says a lot about who we are both as a nation and a society. Our ability to express empathy to those who are suffering from conditions that are, in many cases, outside of one’s control is of vital importance—especially in this day and age living in a country that has been racked by addiction.

Throughout out the second half of the 20th Century and into the 21st, the United States has made and gone through significant changes with how we look at those afflicted by a substance use disorder and how to best effectively treat addiction. Not too long ago, the majority of Americans would have said of addiction, if asked, that it was likely a moral failing; such people lack constitution or willpower and are an example of extreme narcissism.

To be fair, a superficial look at addiction could present a picture of the aforementioned pejorative statements. It could be easy for anyone without all the facts to view the disease in such a light, and such viewpoints are then perpetuated and disseminated to others who also lack the ability to grasp what is actually going on inside the mind of an addict. As a result, thunderous clouds of stigma float permanently above the millions of Americans who have been touched by this pernicious mental illness.

Yet, a closer look through the lens of science reveals the nature of addiction as being something altogether different. Which is why, for quite some time the disease of addiction has been classified as a serious mental health disorder, a condition that has little to do with a moral compass. Scientists have overwhelmingly concluded, that while no one chooses to be an addict and there is not a cure for the disorder, with assistance those living in active addiction can make changes to break away from drugs and alcohol and recover. Going on to live a meaningful and productive life, existing as part of society rather than being the subject of ostracization.

From Stigma to Empathy

If addiction is a disorder which has no cure, but can be maintained allowing for individuals to live relatively normal lives, then do you wonder why addicts are viewed so differently than those who suffer from other incurable conditions? The response to that question is far from easy to answer, being the subject of many an investigation. But simply put, much of the stigma of addiction rests on the fact that the complex disease is not well understood. Such a reality has opened the door for people without any qualifications to draw conclusion about substance use, and nonchalantly disseminate their “2+2=5” summations.

We would like you to imagine for a moment and entreat you to look honestly inside your selves, that somebody close to you contracted a serious illness. Perhaps a condition that science currently offers no cure, but does provide treatments that can prove effective at slowing down the progression of such disorders (e.g. diabetes, HIV, cancer and Parkinson’s). Could you picture yourself acting towards that individual in such a way as to elicit guilt or shame inside your loved one? Can you see yourself saying to someone dying from cancer or AIDS that they are ‘not trying hard enough?’ That they could get better, but are choosing to do otherwise. While rhetorical questions like this may seem like “no brainers,” they illustrate the absurdity of casting stones at somebody with a terminal illness.

Now, please close your eyes, picture your mother, daughter or neighbor is not suffering from cancer, but rather addiction. Would you act the same way in respect to them, as you would if they had cancer?

PSAs About Stigma

Breaking the stigma of addiction is a process that requires a multifaceted approach involving several agencies. Last week, the American College of Physicians (ACP) published a position paper arguing that addiction should be viewed as a “chronic disease” requiring treatment. Substance use problems are not a "moral disorder or character defect."

At the same time, a new campaign was launched called “Stop the Shame,” which released two public service announcements aimed at breaking the stigma of addiction. We must warn you ahead of time, the PSAs are hard to watch due to the videos accuracy with regard to how people living with addiction can be, and often are treated.

PSA 1: Addicts Hear Comments Cancer Patients Never Would

If you are having trouble watching, please click here.

PSA 2: Addicts Hear Comments Parkinson’s Patients Never Would

If you are having trouble watching, please click here.

Far Reaching Effects

The tough comments that people with addiction endure on regular basis have a serious impact, affecting American society. Those made to feel shame and guilt about addiction are less inclined to seek help for their condition. As a result, their illness progresses, sending ripples throughout the country. For starters, without treatment, more and more families find themselves burying loved ones before their time. There is also a huge economic toll that is associated with untreated addiction. Lawmakers have tried arresting addiction away, unsuccessfully. The time for compassion, is now.