By Haley Kennedy, Recovery Coach – 11.20.2020 —
There are many obstacles to overcoming substance use disorder and one of them is stigma. Substance use disorder stigma can prevent people from seeking help and can prevent loved ones, or the community from providing the support that they deserve and need.
WHAT IS THE STIGMA OF SUBSTANCE USE DISORDER?
Substance use disorder stigma refers to inaccurate and damaging assumptions or stereotypes such as:
· The use of certain words: People can use derogatory and hurtful words regarding substance use disorder (sometimes unintentionally.) “Getting clean” seems like an innocuous phrase, but it can subtly suggest that someone who is struggling is “dirty.”
· Assumptions about their flaws: In reality, people who suffer from substance use disorders are just human beings. Every person has strengths and weaknesses, and their weaknesses are not larger or more numerous than those of any other person.
· Associations of lifestyles or backgrounds: There is a saying that “the disease of addiction does not discriminate.” People with substance use disorder come from all communities and backgrounds, including those with higher education or seem well-off.
· Flawed belief that it is a choice: People do not choose to have the disease of addiction. Substances alter and impact brain chemistry which makes addiction a disease, not a choice.
HOW CAN WE COMBAT THE STIGMA?
We start de-stigmatizing substance use with education and conversations. With the common understanding that it is a disease rather than a choice, we make it easier for those who need help, to get it. When we stand together to combat stigma, we encourage kindness and compassion rather than judgement.
· We can seek to understand and share the science: The stigma often stems from the mistaken belief that addiction is a choice. In fact, scientific studies have been consistent in demonstrating that it is a disease. Treating substance use as a disease paves the way for a science-backed approach to recovery, complete with medications for opiate use disorder when needed.
· We can learn decrease the shame: People seeking recovery or suffering from substance use disorder can take responsibility and seek treatment or support without being made to feel bad about their condition.
· We can implement new ideas for prevention: In the past, educational campaigns focused on the concept of “just say no.” While it was well intended, it inadvertently added to the stigma by suggesting it is a choice. We can, again, focus on the science and educate our youth on the disease of addiction and the risks associated with substances.
· We can support the recovery community: All individuals living with substance use disorder are still people who deserve our love and support. Even while building healthy boundaries, we can provide them with support and kindness and cheer them on when they seek help.