By David L. Rosenbloom, Ph. D.
Stigma is one of the meanest and most difficult aspects of addiction because it makes it harder for people and families to deal with their problems and get the help they need. Society imposes stigma – and its damage – on addicts and their families because many of us still believe that addiction is a character flaw or weakness that probably can’t be cured. The stigma against people with addictions is so deeply rooted that it continues even in the face of the scientific evidence that addiction is a treatable disease and even when we know people in our families and communities living wonderful lives in long-term recovery.
Stigma is the reason there is so much social and legal discrimination against people with addictions. It explains why addicts and their families hide the disease. Discrimination always hurts stigmatized groups because they are excluded from the rules that apply to “normal” people. So insurance companies get away with refusing to pay for alcohol or drug treatment, or with charging higher deductibles and co-pays than for treating any other disease. People who need the help are often afraid to speak up. State and federal agencies feel safe in denying food stamps and baby formula to mothers who have past drug convictions because mothers who used drugs have few supporters in the political system and face lots of people who think they must be “bad mothers.” Though studies have found that helping employees to recover is more cost-effective than termination, some employers believe that firing an employee with a drinking problem is a lot easier than providing rehabilitation. A firestorm of protest would erupt if employers treated workers with cancer or heart disease the same way.
People who are victims of stigma internalize the hate it carries, transforming it to shame and hiding from its effects. Too often, people with alcohol and drug problems and their families begin to accept the ideas that addiction is their own fault and that maybe they are too weak to do anything about it. In many ways, hiding an addiction problem is the rational thing to do because seeking help can mean losing a job and medical insurance, or even losing your child when a social service agency declares you an unfit parent because you have an alcohol or drug problem.
The stress of hiding often causes other medical and social problems for the individuals and their families. This is especially true when an adolescent has an alcohol or drug problem. Fear often prompts kids to hide the problem from parents. Then, when parents find out, stigma makes them feel guilty and somehow negligent. Illness and family dysfunction explode. When that happens, parents find it even harder to fight for the care and resources their child urgently needs from a social and medical system that blames the family and the child.
FIVE THINGS YOU CAN DO TO FIGHT STIGMA
We may not change overnight the way society feels about people with alcohol and drug problems, but we can end the legal discrimination caused by stigma
1. Demand equal medical insurance coverage for alcohol and drug treatment.
2. Tell your elected representatives to stop punishing babies for the past problems of their mothers.
3. Tell your state lawmakers to remove the legal barriers that prevent people recovering from addictions from getting jobs.
4. Give more than lip service to the reality that addiction is a disease, not a character weakness.
5. Be an advocate for an individual or family with an addiction problem.