Challenging the Stigma of Addiction With The Language of Recovery

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During the first Presidential debate of 2020, a topic unrelated to politics came up repeatedly: Hunter Biden. The son of the former Vice President has had a well-known struggle with drugs. His battles have been turned into political fodder, with the President of the United States and his supporters repeatedly attacking Hunter and using him as fodder to attack Joe Biden. This has included mocking his disease and implying that Hunter’s struggles somehow reflect on the ability to Joseph Biden to lead the country.

This is more than wrong – it is dangerous. It reinforces stigma, and will unquestionably keep more people locked in the closet of shame, isolation, and drug use.

What is Stigma?

Stigma is defined by experts as inaccurate and inappropriate beliefs about people as it pertains to conditions or diseases they suffer from. This manifests itself in countless different ways, including interpersonal relationships, beliefs about a disease, help-seeking behaviors, and public policy choices. Stigma can also result in the idea that some people are less deserving of help than others.

Stigma can also reinforce stereotypes about people who suffer from certain diseases. Unfortunately, this is unquestionably the case when it comes to the stigma that surrounds substance abuse. Common stereotypes include:

  • People who abuse drugs or alcohol are morally weak and have consciously made poor decisions to ruin their lives.

  • Someone could just “snap” themselves out of an addiction if they only tried hard enough.

  • People who are addicted to substances will never truly recover and can never lead happy lives.

All of the above stereotypes are wildly inaccurate ways of describing the behavior of people who are addicted to substances. 

It is also worth noting that there are two types of stigma. First is the obvious: The stigma that one person applies to others. However, the second kind of stigma – self-stigma – is perhaps even more impactful.

Self-stigma is exactly what it sounds like: People who suffer from addiction issues will take all the negative stereotypes and beliefs that are out there about people with substance use disorders and apply them to themselves. As such, they will believe that they are undeserving of love and not worthy of treatment. They will then continue to behave in self-destructive ways and not seek the treatment that they need. 

Fighting Back Against Stigma

Public awareness campaigns and stories are absolutely keys to defeating stigma. Studies have shown that certain interventions, such as educational campaigns, can change attitudes about people who suffer.

Personal stories may be able to make the greatest difference. Humans are hard-wired to understand and react to stories. It is very difficult to listen to another person who is vulnerable, in a state of pain, and not feel some sort of empathy for them. Individuals who are brave enough to share their stories and discuss their triumphs and tragedies can do a world of good when it comes to breaking the stigma that continues to surround substance use disorders. 

It is also worth noting that the words of leaders matter. That’s one of the things that make the words of President Trump against Hunter Biden so dangerous: The man who is no less than the President of the United States is using the power of his office to attack and mock a private citizen who has struggled with substance abuse.

He is far from the only person to abuse his station in such a way. In a recent tweet, Dr. Paul Gossar, an Arizona Congressman, mocked Hunter Biden’s addiction, posting a picture of Biden asleep with what appeared to be a crack pipe in his mouth and the comment, “Hunter ‘I love you too my little friend.'” Tweets like these are dangerous. They dehumanize individuals who suffer and make them seem unworthy of love and respect. 

People who suffer from substance use disorders must feel valued, loved, and appreciated, just like the rest of us. For example, a recent story leaked texts sent from former Vice President Biden to Hunter. In those texts, Biden referred to his “beautiful son” and expressed his love for his child. Texts like these are wonderful. They show that people who suffer from addiction can still be valued and cherished, even by people who they have presumably hurt. The humanizing impact of these texts and conversations like this cannot be understated.

Stigma as a Barrier to Getting Treatment

These self-limiting beliefs can keep people from getting treatment. This is because individuals will find themselves unworthy of treatment, and even if that’s not the case, the treatment may not exist because there isn’t enough public or financial pressure to incentivize insurance company’s or government officials to create those problems. Indeed, you could make the argument that stigma is at the root of many of these issues.

Substance Use Disorder is a Disease

It is vital to recognize that substance use disorder is not a moral failing, but a disease, just like any other. This shift is important. Failure to do so means that people will continue to wrongly believe that they are somehow at fault for their addiction struggles. As such, they will not seek help. By recognizing substance use disorder as an illness, not a weakness, people can better understand that they are entitled to help.

This belief applies in all areas, ranging from everything to interpersonal to public policy. After all, no government official would ever tell someone with a heart condition that they should just quit having a heart condition or that it will go away on its own if they just try hard enough. If we put substance use disorders on the same level, policy-makers become much more likely to spend public resources on treatment options. 

This is important because the conversation around what causes substance use disorder has to be adjusted. You would never think that someone who had a heart condition, Alzheimer’s or arthritis had a moral failing, but you would likely think that a series of life experiences and genetics had led them to this point. This is unquestionably the case for substance use disorder. The evidence is clear: A combination of lived experience and genetics can lead to a substance abuse disorder. It is not a moral failing, a lack of faith, or any sort of weakness.

When you get right down to it, substance use disorders are a disease. No more, no less.

The Impact of Language

Humans are hardwired to tie emotional meaning to the words that they say and hear. This is why language is so, so important, and why words like “junkie” can cause such spikes of shame.

So, how does that apply to the stigma of substance abuse? Language must be person-centered, not disease centered. A person is not defined by their addiction. That’s why terms like “addict” are harmful – not only do they have a wide array of negative connotations, but they make a person sound as if all they are is addicted to a substance. A person is so much more than their disease. No one is an “addict,” but people are addicted to drugs. There is a huge difference and an important one. 

The important point is this: Everyone deserves a chance to get help. Stigma is real, but if you suffer, you deserve care and treatment. Don’t let stigma stop you from getting the help you need.

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