We’ve come a long way in our understanding of addiction. Whereas it used to be thought of as a sin or a sign of poor character, most people now know that addiction is a disease. This is largely thanks to the popularity of AA and other 12-Step programs as well as more recent media coverage of the opioid epidemic. Despite this progress, there is still a long way to go. A 2018 AP-NORC poll found that while a slight majority of Americans now see addiction as a disease that requires treatment, 44 percent said they believed addiction showed a lack of self-control or discipline and 33 percent said it was a character flaw. And fewer than 20 percent said they would closely associate with someone with a substance use disorder.
These beliefs are not only misguided, but they can have real effects on people with substance use disorders. Blaming the victims of addiction can lead to less money and support for treatment, more criminalizing of addictive behavior, and more reluctance to seek help on the part of people with substance use disorders. While it’s very hard for any one person to change public opinion, you can do your part to help fight the stigma of addiction, including the following.
Learn as Much as You Can About Addiction
The more you know about the causes and effective treatments for addiction, the less likely you are to believe and spread inaccurate information. There are many sources of free, evidence-based information about addiction online. These include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. If you really want to get into the details, the National Center for Biotechnology Information, or NCBI, has thousands of peer-reviewed research papers on many topics, including addiction, and most of these are free to read. There is also a lot of free information available from mutual-aid groups like 12-Step programs and SMART Recovery.
In addition to these resources, there are many excellent books about addiction and recovery. Some good titles by addiction experts include Unbroken Brain by Maia Szalavitz, High Price, by Carl Hart, and In the Land of Hungry Ghosts, by Gabor Mate. There are also many good memoirs about addiction and recovery. Addiction science is a relatively new and still very active field and experts disagree on many points, but the resources above will give you a good idea of where there is consensus and where there is still debate.
Examine Your Assumptions About What Addiction Looks Like
We all have our biases and stereotypes, and these likely include your ideas about what substance use disorders look like. This is true whether you’ve personally struggled with addiction for years, someone you love has struggled with addiction, or addiction has had little effect on your life. You probably have a mental model of addiction that is fairly limited to some degree. That’s because addiction is mostly an invisible problem. Only about 10 percent of people with substance use disorders get the help they need. The rest mostly struggle in private and they are often very good at keeping up appearances. As a result, addiction is a far more widespread problem than most people realize and the “average” person with a substance use disorder probably doesn’t match your mental image.
Be Careful How You Talk and Write About Addiction
The language we use matters and this is especially true about addiction. The language you use can help or hurt. It can perpetuate the idea that people with substance use disorders are criminals and losers, or it can promote the idea that they are people who are hurting and need help. This matters whether the people you’re talking to have substance use issues or not. However, it’s also worth keeping in mind that you never really know whether you’re talking to someone with a substance use issue.
It’s always important to avoid dehumanizing language like “junkie” or “crackhead.” However, any kind of labeling language is stigmatizing. It’s typically a good policy to use “person-first” language. So instead of “addict,” say “person with a substance use disorder.” This way, you aren’t reducing a person to their single worst quality. Labels also suggest something inherent and permanent about the person, whereas we know that addiction is a set of behaviors that can be unlearned. Whenever you’re talking about addiction or someone with a substance use disorder, think that you might be talking about someone you care deeply about.
Call out Inaccurate Information
It’s not enough to be informed yourself and to be careful about your own language as it relates to addiction; you also have to do what you can to stop the spread of faulty information. Most people’s opinions, including those about addiction, are superficial and hardly involve more than just repeating something they’ve heard somewhere.
If you’ve studied the subject at all, you’re obliged to at least challenge this inaccurate information when you hear it. You may not convince anyone but you can at least get more accurate information out there and let people know there are other possible perspectives. This is true of both in-person conversations and things you see in mass media or social media. When you see stigmatizing language or inaccurate information, let the content creator know–politely–that you feel they’ve said something that is possibly misleading or harmful. Most content creators want to be fair and accurate and will appreciate respectful feedback.
Share Your Experiences, When Appropriate
Finally, under certain conditions, it might help to share your own experience with addiction. As noted, addiction is a fairly invisible problem. For most people, it only exists “out there.” Sharing your own experience can put a human face on addiction and overturn someone’s beliefs pretty quickly. If you’re talking to someone with substance use issues of their own, knowing they aren’t alone and personally knowing someone who is in recovery can encourage them to seek help.
It’s important for all of us to think about how we can help reduce the stigma of addiction. This helps people with substance use disorders, their families, and society in general. It’s important to learn as much as you can, to be careful what you say, correct wrong information, and possibly even share your story.
At Hired Power, we know that most people will be touched by addiction in some way at some point in their lives and we are here to help you get through it with intervention and transportation services, case management, sober assistants, and other services. For more information, call us at 800.910.9299.