Drug addiction is disheartening and devastating for the addict and those that love the addict. Despite the obstacles found in getting clean, many drug treatment options are available to help the addict find lasting recovery. While drug treatment is effective and gives the addict the tools and support they need to get and stay sober, many never seek treatment. The main reason behind this is one word: stigma. Stigma is the number one reason why addicts stay stuck in addiction.

What is Stigma?

Most of us have heard the term stigma and know it has negative connotations. However, many people may not be able to define the stigma. The following is a definition given by the website Drug Policy:

Stigma is defined as the experience of being “deeply discredited” or marked due to one’s “undesired differentness.” To be stigmatized is to be held in contempt, shunned or rendered socially invisible because of a socially disapproved status.”

Stigma can apply to those people struggling with substance abuse as well as those who may be in recovery. Stigma creates social rejection and people who are addicted or in recovering can be labelled in a negative way. Additionally, those who are stigmatized can face discrimination—especially in finding employment and housing.


Interestingly, stigma can occur between those people who use drugs. For example, those who use alcohol may stigmatize those who use marijuana, cocaine or other drugs. The reason behind this is the perception that since alcohol is a legal drug, it isn’t as “bad” as other drugs. This can hold true for those people who may inject a drug and look down on others who may snort or smoke a drug.

Stigma becomes most damaging when people fully believe in what society at large says about them ad addicts and people. Despite the advances in the understanding of addiction, many people look at addicts as morally and spiritually bankrupt. When feelings of shame, guilt and anger become internalized, the addict feels as though there is no hope.

Overcoming Stigma

Stigma is a huge barrier to getting the professional help needed to recover. While formidable, there are things you can do to help negate the power of stigma. The following can help you get started:


The most important way to reduce and eliminate stigma is to learn about addiction. Despite what many people think, addiction is a complex condition that has biological, environmental and social roots. Learn everything you can from reputable web sites and addiction professionals. Additionally, take the time to learn about the different treatment options that are available to those who suffer from substance abuse.

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Processes of stigmatization

Processes od stigmatization include:

– Decreased social support from family and friends

– Discrimination in important life areas such as employment, housing, justice, and access to healthcare

– Decisions by social and health agencies and governmental policy decisions

Too often society is unfair to people with addiction—a fact that disturbs most people with active addiction, most people who are recovering from addiction, and most people who advocate for those groups.  Fortunately, we can do something about it.  Don’t be daunted—small steps can have a powerful impact.

Social stigma exists within culture.  Stigma occurs when a characteristic of a person or subgroup is perceived as different from others, is labeled, and the label becomes associated with a negative stereotype.

We are frequently, and not subtly, inundated with sensationalistic tales of debauchery by the latest “outed” celebrity behaving in very unflattering ways, refusing treatment, disrespecting the justice system, and so on. Naturally, this has the cultural effect of intensifying the moral judgement of individuals living with substance abuse, regardless of their desire for, and commitment to, recovery.

But, it is essential to remember that for every Lindsay Lohan, Charlie Sheen and Anna Nicole Smith, none of whom ever let the negative publicity spark personal introspection, there are dozens of famous people who had the courage confront their addiction and successfully regain social acceptance and high regard. Jamie Lynn Curtis, Drew Barrymore, and perennial fan favorite Robert Downey Jr. all struggled publicly, and each has since embraced the role of sobriety advocate.

Lastly, perhaps the most courageous of all, Former First Lady Betty Ford.
Imagine, the First Lady. Back in the 1970s scrutiny of the private lives of public figures was relatively un- invasive by today’s standards.

People didn’t stop laughing at drunk acts like Dean Martin and Foster Brooks until after Betty Ford opened her chemical dependency treatment center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in 1982.

Ms. Ford helped create a new sobering reality for America by lending her name, energy and experience as a recovering addict to the center.

In 1978, after the Ford family staged an intervention and forced her to confront her alcoholism and an addiction to opioid analgesics she went into treatment for substance abuse.

In 1982, after her recovery, she established the Betty Ford Center (initially called the Betty Ford Clinic) in Rancho Mirage, California, for the treatment of chemical dependency. She served as chair of the board of directors.

In 2005, Ford relinquished her chair of the center’s board of directors to her daughter Susan. She had held the top post at the center since its founding. Her husband joked about how she had been chairperson of the board while he had only been a president.

“The fact that Betty Ford lent her name to the center had a profound effect on the treatment of alcoholism,” said Dr. James West, a medical director at the Betty Ford Center from its opening until his April 2007 retirement.

“When she made it clear that she was the head of this place and a recovering person herself, that had a very profound effect on the whole system throughout the country.”

Stigma recedes as people focus more on what they have in common and focus less on their differences.  It doesn’t matter whether incremental positive changes take place in society or in the individual; everything interacts.  As people become more real and human to one another, stereotypes become irrelevant.

Some Options

1. Get Help. Another way to decrease or eliminate stigma is to actually seek help. Don’t let addiction define who you are. By going to treatment, you will actually get to the underlying causes of your addiction and can get the help you need to break free and find sobriety. When you overcome addiction, you regain your health and self-esteem and most of all your self-worth and dignity. If you are actively addicted, stop feeding society’s negative stereotype and get sober. 

Seek detoxification if needed, and then take responsibility for the details of recovery management (relapse prevention) and the use of recovery supports.  Don’t defend past addictive behaviors; accept them for what they are.  Feel and express remorse.

Over time, make amends.  (Okay, maybe these are bigger than small steps.)  If you are not actively addicted, you may still have work to do.  If, for example, you feel diminished and “less than,” deepen your commitment to a way of growth, such as psychotherapy, Twelve-Step recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous or a related program, or spiritual practice (perhaps self-compassion, which is drawn from Buddhism).  All can help you feel and act less different from others.

2. Reach out.  You have a right to privacy, but you are also free to share your story, which allows others to become more comfortable with their own story and helps them feel less different—more comfortable with their own humanity.  Young people told singer and actress Demi Lovato that public disclosure of her mental health and substance abuse problems helped them face their own.

3. Network.  There is strength in numbers, and you may multiply your impact if you add your perspective and energy to an established advocacy organization such as NCADD.

4. Be normal.  If it is important to your comfort or safety, for instance, to have wine glasses removed from a restaurant table and to find out whether a dish has been prepared with alcohol, remind yourself you are really no different from the person who is allergic to nuts and insists that a nut bowl be removed and questions the server about the ingredients of an entrée or dessert.  In both situations, it is embarrassment and reticence that are out of place.

5. Be heard.  How fair or unfair society will be in the future to people with addiction will be determined in part by the outcome of multiple public policy issues, including health care reform. If you hold a stake and a point of view, legislators and other policymakers deserve to know what they are.

“Stigma is shame.  Shame causes silence.  Silence hurts us all.”

Don’t Isolate

If you are an addict, your first reaction is to isolate yourself from others. While you feel shame and guilt for your condition, you must reach out to family, friends and recovering peers and professionals for support. Reach out to those that you trust and know will be 100 percent supportive of your efforts to get sober.

Join a Support Group

To beat back stigma, it is also advisable to join a sober support group. These groups are made of recovering peers who share information and support each other as they work towards long-term sobriety. While 12-step groups such as AA and NA are most common, there are alternative support groups such as SMART Recovery and LifeRing available.

Your Addiction Doesn’t Define You

One thing to remember is that addiction doesn’t define you as a person. Instead of saying that you are an addict, say you have a substance abuse problem and are working to resolve it. Being an addict is a chapter in your life, and you have the power to rewrite your life through drug treatment and continued support.

If you or a loved one is struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, now is the time to act. Despite what others may think, drug treatment will give you the tools you need to become healthy, happy, and sober. Call Hawaii Island Recovery today and let our experienced treatment staff create an individualized treatment program that fits your unique needs.