Why Is There Still So Much Shame and Stigma Around Addiction?

Why Is There Still So Much Shame and Stigma Around Addiction?
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Author: Tulip Hill Recovery
Published: September 1, 2021

With millions of Americans suffering from addiction to drugs or alcohol, you might think that it would be a common and accepted problem in society. But, unfortunately, there is still a lot of stigma and shame surrounding addiction. Stigma and discrimination can be problematic for those suffering from addiction-inducing feelings of guilt and shame, which can be a barrier to recovery.

What Is Stigma?

Stigma is when there is a widespread societal negative opinion on a certain subject. In the context of addiction, stigma incorrectly characterizes the condition as a personal failing rather than a medical condition.

This could include people thinking that substance users are lazy, amoral, or otherwise incapable of dealing with the pressures of life. This couldn’t be further from the truth - addiction is extremely complex and often involves many factors outside the user’s control.

What Causes Shame and Stigma Around Addiction?

Negative Portrayals in the Media

The media plays an important role in shaping the views of the general public. Research in this field has shown that TV shows, movies, and fiction books are likely to portray people suffering from addiction negatively.

Negative media portrayals often frame the problem as the fault of the person suffering from addiction - even though we know that it is a complex health problem caused by a range of issues. This not only affects people’s empathy levels towards those suffering from the condition, but it also can make people reluctant to seek help due to fear of judgment.

This can result in feeling cast out from society, which sets a vicious cycle of using substances to cover up these difficult feelings.

Self-reliance Culture

American culture often promotes self-reliance and individuality. This can be amazingly positive, but it can also spill over into feeling ashamed for asking for help and support.

For example, society encourages males to be real men and bottle up their feelings - branding the sharing of emotions as a female trait. Addiction treatment requires talking about deep and difficult feelings and opening up to people. If people feel this is a weak thing to do, it can perpetuate shameful feelings and make recovery more difficult to attain.

The Shame Cycle

The shame of addiction can lead people to keep their problems to themselves, making it harder to reach out to family and friends for support. The stigma around addiction can also make people suffering from these mental health issues blame themselves and feel unworthy of recovery.

Shame is a powerfully negative emotion that can lead us to engage more in addictive behaviors. This pattern is what researchers call the shame cycle - as shame and addiction exacerbate one another.

How Can You Deal with Stigma?

There are several different ways to deal with the stigma that can accompany a mental health problem like addiction, such as:

  • Getting professional mental health treatment. Don’t let the fear of stigmatized labels keep you from getting the help you need and deserve!
  • Refuse to be isolated. Stigma can isolate us from those around us, leading us to internalize it further. You can beat this by reaching out and connecting with loved ones and telling them what you’re struggling with.
  • Remember: it’s not personal. Most people who buy into addiction stigma do so because they don’t understand it or have only seen negative portrayals in the media. There are no judgments on you as an individual, but on the society they have grown up in. Remembering this can help take the sting out of insensitive comments.
  • Join a local group campaigning against stigma. All over the world, people are coming together to fight for better support for mental health problems and to end the stigma that often surrounds this. Joining a group can help you feel better about yourself in the short term and help make the world an easier place to live for everyone in the future.

To recover from addiction, it is important to challenge the shame you may feel. You are not alone, and you do not need to feel ashamed. Trained therapists, your loved ones, and your community can support you in this process. Together, it is possible to break the cycle of shame and addiction and begin your recovery journey.

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