How to Eliminate the Stigma of Addiction and Mental Illnesses
Updated: Feb 15
Substance abuse and mental illness aren’t choices. Nor are they the result of a weak character or a lack of willpower. They’re diseases that can happen to anyone—sisters, friends, lawyers, doctors, even elected officials.
Look at the impact the Opioid epidemic is having in the United States.
The epidemic knows no bounds.
No class or ethnic group has gone unaffected.
Unfortunately, the stigma attached to these issues remains. Those struggling with these diseases, however, feel stigma’s effects most strongly.
Often, it prevents them from getting the help they need.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
We can can take action to help remove the stigma attached to these diseases and lessen their impact on everyone involved. These critical steps can change how people think about these diseases and help eliminate the sense of shame associated with them.
Impact of Stigma on an Individual
The stigma that clings to substance abuse and mental illness is an enormous barrier to treatment.
The word "stigma" comes from a Greek word meaning "a physical mark made by a pointed instrument."
While the English word “stigma” lacks that precise meaning of the Greek, many addicts and people with mental illness feel like they’re “marked” for all to see.
Eventually, that feeling creates a painful sense of shame in the individual.
Shame is a heavy burden for anyone. But for addicts and the mentally ill, this sense of shame can feel unbearable. It makes them feel as if they’re “defective” in one way or another.
These feelings often bar individuals from seeking treatment.
Practical Effects of Stigma
The stigma associated with substance abuse and mental illness has other effects.
In addition to discouraging them from seeking treatment, the stigma can prevent addicts and the mentally ill from participating in normal everyday activities like finding work or even socializing. This reclusive behavior can be devastating to their recovery.
What’s more, some private doctors won’t work with addicts and the mentally ill thanks to the perceived low rate of treatment success.
Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies relegate treatment to lower priority, preferring instead to develop treatments for more chronic illness.
Fortunately, more and more people are coming to understand these illnesses and even taking the steps to learn how they can be part of the solution.
Stopping the Stigma of Addiction
Have you ever walked away from a challenge? A real life altering challenge?
I have. Several times.
Fear of failing. Uncertainty. Stubborn pride.
It felt easier to hide, rather than to confront my addiction.
For people living with addiction or mental illness, these obstacles are real and bigger than anything they've encountered before.
So, how do we help them overcome these roadblocks to meet the challenge?
Educating ourselves can help prevent and reduce the stigma of these diseases by providing accurate, detailed data on preventing and treating them.
Fortunately, many grassroots organization are working hard at educating the public. But this effort needs to continue.
Speaking out is another key to removing the negatives associated with addiction and mental illness. When individuals join together to combat the stigma of these diseases, good things happen. Friends, families, treatment providers, medical organizations—all need to speak up.
People in recovery also need to speak up. In fact, addicts and the mentally ill are often the strongest—and most successful—advocates for beating the stigma of these diseases. When these people share their experiences, hopes, failures and successes, they combat the stigma.
More Ways to Eliminate Stigma
Educating the public and speaking out are two powerful ways to eliminate the stigma of addiction and mental illness. There are others. Nine are below:
Encourage equality between physical diseases and these diseases
Remind people of the power of negative language
Show empathy and compassion for those with these diseases
Choose empowerment over shame
Be upfront and honest about your treatment
Let the media know when it is stigmatizing addiction and mentally ill
Don’t harbor self-stigmatizing by becoming a productive citizen
Listen while withholding judgment
Treat addicts and the mentally ill with respect and dignity
No one likes to feel stigmatized or devalued. By following the tips above you can help combat and eliminate the stigma of addiction.
Fighting the Stigma of Addiction and the Mentally Ill
The stigma attached to these disease isn’t just an individual issue. It's also a public health concern. Findings by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health for example, shows that 21.5 million adults (aged 12 and older) battled substance abuse disorder in 2014.
Sadly, only 2.5 million of these individuals got the specialized treatment they needed. One reason for not getting treatment is the stigma associated with their condition.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
We can all be part of the solution by sharing information and engaging with those that need our support.