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The Stigma of Addiction: The Evolution of Discrimination

Addicts and their families are all too familiar with the stigma of addiction. Society has painted addicts, whether in recovery or not, as criminals, thugs, and overall miscreants. Instead of looking at addicts as people who are sick and suffering, they’re consistently demonized. It is this stigma that often prevents many people who are struggling with addiction from seeking the help they need.

What is Stigma?

Stigma, by definition, is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. Essentially, a stigma is a bad reputation across a specific group of people. The stigma of addiction comes as no surprise considering so few people actually understand the disease of addiction at all.

Stigma originates from a place of fear. When it comes to the stigma of addiction, many people who don’t understand the disease directly understand instead its implications. They understand that many addicts can become violent, irrational, and downright dangerous as a result of their addiction.

Rather than looking at the logistics surrounding the disorder, they, instead, focus on the tangible evidence that consists of the crimes committed, outbursts, and physical appearance of addicts.

Since addiction does not have physical symptoms like cancer or other health conditions, many people fail to see the correlation to the fact it is a disease. This is the plight that many people who suffer from mental illness face.

People, historically, fear what they cannot see and do not understand. So, it’s no wonder a perfectly healthy person often struggles with the disease concept. Thus, as a result of the perfect storm of fear and ignorance, stigma is born.

Stigma in the Dark Ages

In a world controlled by stigma, the stigma of addiction is still rampant despite all of the educational material available. In the not so distant past, mental illness was poorly understood and treated even worse. People suffering from mental illness have faced persecution throughout the ages.

In Medieval times, people explained mental illness as the work of demons, spirits, or poisons. Routinely killed or subjected to torturous “treatments,” those struggling with mental illness faced gruesome fates. It was worse to be mentally ill than to be sick with plague at one time in history.

Mental Illness in the 20th Century

The advent of science and modern medicine made the understanding of the brain and mental illness more refined. However, treatment did not improve much. Even in 20th century United States (U.S.), mental illness treatment remained barbaric.

Lobotomies, the surgical act of severing connections in the brain’s prefrontal lobe, were performed widely as a treatment for various mental disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, and drug addiction. This practice was commonplace up until as recently as the 1960s right here in America!

Thankfully, the winds of change began to blow for the stigma of addiction in the 1930s with the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. For the first time in human history, people suffering from addiction had a real place to go and open up about their affliction without fear of persecution or being completely stigmatized.

By 1956, the American Medical Association (AMA) officially declared that alcoholism was a disease, not a mere flaw of moral character. Unfortunately, this classification is still not enough for some people.

Modern Prejudice

Despite the adversity circumvented through history paving the way for modern addicts to find refuge, unfortunately, we’re still not there, even in 2017. People are still in active debate over whether addiction is a disease or choice more than 60 years after the AMA’s ruling. It is thanks to the stigma of addiction that millions of people suffer in silence, afraid to seek treatment and face persecution.

The stigma of addiction isn’t just among the every man either. Even certain people in the medical profession treat addicts and alcoholics differently. When addicts complain of pain or medical conditions, they are met with more scrutiny of their claims than non-addicts, making it far more difficult to receive treatment.

Funding available for government-run rehab programs is also discriminatory. The amount of money delegated to these state-run programs is severely disproportionate to the detriment that addiction is currently placing on society.

Private insurance companies also make it exceedingly difficult for addicts to receive treatment. Refusing to authorize treatment for those suffering or having such strict stipulations on addiction treatment makes receiving rehab next to impossible in some instances.

Addicts: Criminals or Patients?

Perhaps the area in which we see the stigma of addiction most vibrantly apparent is the U.S. judicial system. Here, drug related crimes make up 17% of state prison populations and 18% of federal inmates. Rates of recidivism for drug addicts are deplorable. Many addicts find themselves stuck in the hopeless cycle of crime and addiction with few alternatives.

For instance, law enforcement in Ohio is calling for the cessation of Narcan (the life-saving anti-overdose drug when dispensed to an addict can mean the difference between life and death) administration among addicts.

With the opioid epidemic reaching new heights in middle America, officials are calling for a “3-strike” rule. With this rule, if Narcan has been dispensed 3 times prior, a lifesaving dose will be withheld by emergency responders on the 4th call. “I’m not the one who decides if people live or die. They decide that when they stick that needle in their arm,” said Richard K. Jones, Sheriff, Butler County, OH.

The Stigma of Addiction in the Workplace

Even worse is the backlash addicts face in the workforce. While most companies have a no drug policy in place, many do not have any support or access to resources for their employees struggling with addiction.

Many people face the hard choice of either losing their jobs in pursuit of drug treatment or merely continuing on, toiling away in addiction. Companies are far less sympathetic to an addict looking for leave to treat his addiction as opposed to any other illness.

I can personally attest to the discrimination of addicts in the hiring process. Many addicts seek out employment in recovery but are subject to difficulties thanks to their criminal records.

When I entered halfway after treatment, despite having no record, I was advised by the halfway house manager to avoid using their address on my job applications. I was told if local businesses saw the address, they’d know right away I was in recovery and refuse to hire me. Initially, I shrugged it off, assuming it was a gross exaggeration. But I began noticing a disturbing pattern on my job interviews.

Potential employers would openly ask me if I was in recovery. I would lie and say no, to which they had the audacity to tell me,”Good, because we don’t hire those people. They’re unreliable.”

I’d often take job applications dropped off by others in surrounding halfway houses to my boss. He’d take one look at the address, scoff, and toss it in the trash. The business owners wouldn’t even look at the applications.

Break the Stigma, Save Lives

The stigma of addiction is alive and well. The stigma surrounding mental illness has been prevalent since the dark ages. Despite all the advances mankind has made, we’re still not where we should be. Fear of social backlash is one of the primary reasons struggling addicts avoid seeking treatment.

Every year, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 21.5 million Americans struggle with a substance use disorder. Of that 21.5 million, only 2.5 million received the help they needed. Those figures are deplorable. With the death rate as it is, approximately 120 people per day, something needs to change.

We need to begin by educating people and addressing the stigma of addiction.

Don’t Let the Fear of the Stigma of Addiction Stop You!

If you or someone you care for is struggling with addiction, don’t hesitate to call us at 888-969-8755. Our team of knowledgeable professionals at California Highlands Addiction Treatment is here for you. Start the journey toward wellness sooner than later.