Destigmatizing the Stigma of Addiction


For years, the topic of mental illness has been stigmatized and considered taboo. Even today, certain stereotypes and inaccurate representations of mental illness exist. However, in recent years, there have been significant efforts to normalize mental illness and co-occurring addiction. As the public health crisis of addiction and overdoses continues to rise, destigmatizing mental illness and addiction is crucial to empower those suffering to reach out for help.

More and more discussions mean that more people are coming forward to tell their narratives, and there’s a greater understanding of the issues. But, unfortunately, there will always be those who do not understand and fail to educate themselves on the importance of mental health. Some still see depression as laziness or anxiety as being overdramatic. Even worse, some believe people choose addiction. Due to stereotypes and misrepresentations, some people do not understand that addiction is a disease.

Words have power, and the words we use can either perpetuate uninformed stereotypes surrounding addiction and mental illness or educate people on the reality of suffering from addiction or mental illness. Our primary focus at Lakehouse Recovery Center may be treating addiction, but we also treat co-occurring disorders to promote a healthy long-term recovery. Please reach out to us knowing that you’re not alone and deserve support during this process.

The Harmful Effects of Addiction Stigmatization

One of the most serious effects of the stigmatization of addiction and inaccurate stereotypes is the number of people suffering that it hurts. Individuals can feel self-conscious and judged for their illness and may not come forward to seek help. Concerning the stigma surrounding mental health, The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states that “untreated drug and alcohol use contribute to tens of thousands of deaths every year,” not to mention how many lives are impacted by those deaths. The problem continues to grow at an alarming rate. According to The Guardian, fentanyl overdoses in California have risen by more than 2100% in five years.

Much of the stigma comes not only from friends, family, and the public, but also the healthcare community who “see a patient’s drug or alcohol problem as their own fault,” and the justice system who see it “as a result of moral weakness and flawed character.”

In addition to death as a result of overdose or health decline from substance use, some other adverse effects of stigmas and stereotypes, according to the NIDA, specifically for those suffering from SUD, include:

  • Unwillingness to seek treatment
  • Isolation, a result of people distancing themselves due to pity, fear, or anger
  • Quality of healthcare provided
  • Lack of support systems from friends, family, and other communities

The Importance of Word Choice

The expression, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt,” can often be misleading. Words matter and can hold so much power. Everything about the way we communicate messages has power. The words we use, the tone we use it in, and how we deliver a message are all impactful. Therefore, it’s important to choose words carefully, not only in most of life’s situations but especially when discussing a topic that was considered taboo until recently.

The NIDA provides a list of words that should be refrained from being used, why those words should not be used, and what words and phrases should be used instead. Some of those include:

  • Instead of “junkie” or “addict,” the expression “person with substance use disorder” should be used as it’s person-first, illustrates that the individual is not the problem but has a problem, and avoids a negative connotation.
  • Avoid using the word “habit,” as it implies that the person chooses to use substances, chooses to continue using, and the word reduces the severity of the illness.
  • Research has shown an overall negative connotation to the word “abuse,” and so the terms “use” or “misuse” is more appropriate.

Beating the Stigma

Each time someone comes forward with their narrative about struggling with addiction, substance use disorder, or any co-occurring mental illness in general, we break down the barriers and stereotypes a little bit more. This illness can affect anyone. If you’re wondering how else you can help in destigmatizing addiction, use some of these tips from the NIDA:

  • When speaking to individuals struggling with or who know people struggle with addiction, “use non-stigmatizing language that reflects an accurate, science-based understanding.”
  • Educate yourself on the terms you should and should not be using.
  • Use person-first language as it “maintains the integrity of individuals as whole human beings” and does not equate them to their condition.

Everyone, whether or not they’ve experienced mental illness or have struggled with addiction, is going through something, and so it’s important to remember to be kind. Always.

For years, people have felt shame over their struggles with mental health or substance use. A detrimental result of inaccurate and uneducated stereotypes has cost many to lose their lives and loved ones because they did not ask for help due to fear of judgment and ridicule. No one should ever feel shame for asking for help, especially when asking for help is a significant step in the recovery process. By being mindful of word choices, educating ourselves on the severity of these illnesses, and having compassion for our family, friends, neighbors, and strangers, we can successfully change the narrative surrounding addiction and mental illness. If you feel judged, ridiculed, and misunderstood because you may struggle with substance use, addictive agents, and other co-occurring mental illnesses, please reach out to a health care provider today. To learn how Lakehouse Recovery Center can help you on your path to recovery, call us at (877) 762-3707 today.