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Dealing with the Stigma of Addiction

Written By: Harris House

Category: Addiction, Blog, Recovery

Medical technician holding a note labeled care.

A remedy for stigma and the problems it causes in addiction recovery? Caring.

Approximately 10 percent of Americans have had a substance use disorder (SUD) at some point in their lives, according to a study funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). That means that one out of every 10 people you know has suffered with—or is currently suffering with—this struggle. Unfortunately, 75 percent of these same people have not received any form of treatment. What’s complicating an addict’s road to recovery? The stigma associated with addiction. Here’s a closer look at the issue, along with its impact on recovery.

SUD is a Widespread Problem

“More than 23 million adults in the United States have struggled with problematic drug abuse. Given these numbers, and other recent findings about the prevalence and under-treatment of alcohol use disorder in the US, it is vitally important that we continue our efforts to understand the underlying causes of drug and alcohol addiction, their relationship to other psychiatric conditions, and the most effective forms of treatment,” said George F. Koob, Ph.D., NIAAA director.

What’s also vital to reducing problematic drug use? Understanding and reversing low treatment rates. According to NIAAA researchers, several factors are responsible, including doubts about the effectiveness of treatment, inadequate resources, and a lack of knowledge among health care providers. Barriers related to stigmas associated with addiction also make the list, with experts underscoring the need to de-stigmatize SUDs.

So is the Stigma About SUDs

Stigmas are not isolated to SUDs. In fact, people with many health conditions—including everything from HIV to cancer to mental illness—are subject to stigma. Although strides have been made in many areas to reduce stigma, there is still a long way to go when it comes to SUDs.

Writes National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) director Dr. Nora Volkow, “People with addiction continue to be blamed for their disease. Even though medicine long ago reached a consensus that addiction is a complex brain disorder with behavioral components, the public and even many in healthcare and the justice system continue to view it as a result of moral weakness and flawed character.”

What’s making matters worse? It’s not just the uneducated who see a person’s SUD as a problem of their own fault. Healthcare providers are also a major part of the problem, which can lead to substandard care and the rejection of people seeking treatment. For example, a person who walks into an emergency room showing signs of impairment or withdrawal may be refused treatment out of fear of their behavior or the assumption that they’re seeking drugs. As a result, continues Volkow, “People with addiction internalize this stigma, feeling shame and refusing to seek treatment as a result.”

Volkow further proposes that not only does stigma interfere with SUD treatment, but it can actually lead to increased drug use and/or relapse, thereby perpetuating the vicious cycle of addiction.

Holding hands

Understanding and compassionate healthcare providers can not only help addicts seek treatment, but also move in the direction of lasting recovery.

Addressing the Problem of SUD Stigma

All of which begs the question: What can be done to address the problem? According to Volkow, it starts with education about the brain changes that happen in addiction, along with underscoring the fact that many contributing factors are outside of a person’s control. For example, an individual’s genetics or upbringing may make them more susceptible to addiction.

How we treat people with SUDs is also also a vital consideration. “It is crucial that people across healthcare, from staff in emergency departments to physicians, nurses, and physician assistants, be trained in caring compassionately and competently for people with substance use disorders. Treating patients with dignity and compassion is the first step,” insists Volkow.

Data on SUDs and stigma also highlight the need for circumspection when choosing a substance abuse treatment program. Not all addiction recovery programs are the same. Exercising due diligence in order to identify a program staffed by a competent and compassionate team of addiction specialists can make all the difference. Enter leading St. Louis area rehab center, Harris House. Providing targeted SUD treatment for more than 50 years, Harris House’s patient-centered focus not only offers stigma-free treatment, but also helps patients learn the tools they need to cope with stigma on the journey to recovery.  Call us today to learn about admissions.

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