Alcohol Awareness Month is a public health program organized by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence to increase outreach and education regarding the dangers of alcoholism and issues related to alcohol. The program was started in April 1987 to target college-aged students who might be drinking too much as part of their newfound freedom. It has since become a national movement to draw more attention to the causes and effects of alcoholism and how to help families and communities deal with drinking problems. Another significant part of the work of Alcohol Awareness Month is to point out the stigma that still surrounds alcoholism and substance abuse in general.

What Is Stigma?

Stigma involves negative attitudes or discrimination against someone based on a distinguishing characteristic such as a mental illness, health condition, or disability. Social stigmas can also be related to gender, sexuality, race, religion, and culture.

When many people think of alcoholism, they usually jump right to the more severe cases of this disorder. Homeless people or violent outbursts may come to mind, followed by people getting fired for drinking on the job or unable to care for their children. While this is sometimes the case, this alcoholism stereotype is not always the norm.

The stigma surrounding alcoholism is a socio-cultural process in which those addicted to alcohol are traditionally devalued, rejected, and excluded. It’s a form of health-related stigma, as it’s predicated based on a socially discredited health condition.

How Stigma Affects Recovery

One of the most dangerous parts of the stigma behind alcoholism is that it may prevent some people from recognizing a drinking problem or be an excuse for those in denial. If someone does not fit the exact stereotype of alcoholism, it does not mean they do not have a harmful drinking problem. Due to the stigma attached to alcohol abuse being so harsh, the person may also be less likely to believe that they are in actual need of help.

Even if someone recognizes that they have a drinking problem, they may not be willing to get help because of the stigma attached to alcohol abuse. With such harsh views on alcoholism from society, many people are ashamed of their drinking and believe that coming forward will only open them to criticism.

Although someone may have put their drinking behind them, the stigma associated with alcoholism can still follow them. Even if they do not realize they are doing it, some people judge or discriminate against people in recovery. This type of behavior can take many forms. It may be a backhanded comment about sobriety, or it could be someone embarrassed to admit their loved one is in recovery, even when the loved one is willing to share. This type of continued judgment can hinder the recovery process and prevent the person from moving forward.

Educating Ourselves: Alcoholism is a Disease

Many people still believe the outdated idea that alcoholism is a moral failing — if someone really wanted to stop drinking, they just would. However, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), alcoholism is “a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive alcohol seeking, continued use despite harmful consequences, and long-lasting changes in the brain.”

Alcoholism is a well-defined disease and a public health crisis. However, it is treated vastly differently from other chronic conditions, such as cancer. Rather than running in celebrated annual races or participating in fundraisers, those affected by alcoholism are hiding in shame. There is a chasm between our understanding of this disease and our acceptance of it.

With every drink of alcohol, the frontal lobe of the brain–the part that helps us prioritize, strategize, and filter information–is affected. Repeated use disrupts the development and neural circuitry of the brain. When the frontal lobe is damaged, so is our ability to inhibit impulsivity and delay gratification. Addiction also affects neurotransmission and interactions between cortical and hippocampal circuits and brain reward structures.

Moving Past the Stigma

Reducing stigma starts with caring communities. We are our greatest allies and sources of strength. We must learn to love and accept everyone where they are and support those around us. Alcoholism is not a moral failing, and if someone had the choice, they would not choose to be addicted to alcohol.

Talking openly about alcoholism can also help people to feel less alone and part of a community. Self-stigma can be reduced through therapeutic interventions such as group-based acceptance and commitment therapy. Practical strategies for addressing social stigma include motivational interviewing and communicating positive stories of people with substance use disorders.

April is Alcohol Awareness Month, a time to recognize the harmful effects alcohol has on people and their families. It is also a time to acknowledge the stigma behind alcoholism and work towards moving forward. Alcoholism is a brain disease and should be treated as such by the community and healthcare providers alike. When we work as a community and support the people around us, we allow people to recognize alcoholism in themselves, get treatment, and continue their recovery journey. If you are struggling along your sobriety journey and need support, Hired Power is here to help. We want to move past the stigma of alcoholism and help you be the best version of yourself. Hired Power utilizes a collaborative, team approach to help individuals achieve lasting recovery. Our professional team works closely with each client’s existing doctors, therapists, treatment coordinators, interventionists, and other key recovery team members to develop an effective treatment plan based on their unique needs. For more information, call Hired Power today at (800) 910-9299.