Stigma of Substance Abuse and Addiction
Article by: Chief Executive Officer – Patrick McGinn – MS, MA, LLP, CAADC, CCS-M
Webster dictionary defines stigma as a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people use as a mark of disgrace with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. “The stigma of having addiction will always be with me.”
Synonyms: shame, disgrace, dishonor, ignominy, opprobrium, humiliation.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO, 2012): “stigma is a major cause of discrimination and exclusion and it contributes to the abuse of human rights. When a person experiences stigma they are seen as less than because of their real or perceived health status. Stigma is rarely based on facts but rather on assumptions, preconceptions, and generalizations. Stigma results in prejudice, avoidance, rejection and discrimination. Family, friends and the general public can carry negative feelings about drug use or behavior. They may even use derogatory terms such as “junkie,” “drunk,” “crackhead”, “criminal”, “thief”, “scum”, “gutter bum” and many more. These thoughts, feelings, and labels can create and perpetuate stigma.”
Unfortunately people who experience stigma regarding their addiction or negative behaviors are less likely to seek treatment services. Perceived stigma in hospitals or doctors’ offices discourage people from accessing needed health care services.
Addiction, unlike any other public health concern, is viewed as a moral issue and not a health issue. Also, addiction, unlike any other public health concern creates antisocial behaviors. Antisocial behavior patterns are a common characteristic of addiction. With the brain hijacked from the drugs, the addicted person will regularly make bad choices, of which many are calculated. Addicts make many bad choices that cause pain for those around them. The research is clear that the active addict will continue to take a drug despite the negative consequences involved. They know that family, social and career are disrupted by their drug abuse, but they cannot stop.
A term that has become a recognized term in addiction treatment is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment. This however takes time. This process of “rewiring” the brain from addiction to more socially adaptive behaviors can take from 12 months to 3 years and in some instances even longer.
When thinking about addiction we must be careful not to simply reduce the addict simply to moral failure.
Treatment at Harbor Hall extends beyond abstinence or symptom management by helping people achieve a full, meaningful life in the community. Prior treatment, legal history, medication assisted treatment, or other pathways are not viewed as a predictor of poor treatment outcomes and is not used as grounds for denial of treatment. Post treatment continuing care services are an integrated part of the service continuum rather than an afterthought. Focus is on all aspects of the individual and the environment, using a strength-based perspective and emphasizing assessment of recovery capital.