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Stigma Surrounding Drug & Alcohol Addiction

by Landmark Recovery

August 6, 2019
A man sitting on a rock looking at the sky and thinking about addiction

In America, as many as 22 million adults and children over the age of 12 years old struggle with drug and alcohol addiction. This translates to 8.5% of the population.

Though millions of people labor under the burden of addiction, very few people actually seek professional help to break their bondage to drugs and alcohol. According to the National Drug Control Strategy report from 2016, less than 12% of people fighting addiction receive the treatment they need.

Many people don’t seek treatment because of a lack of access to healthcare while others fear they can’t afford it. One common reason for refusing treatment is because of the stigma associated with drug and alcohol addiction.

What Is Stigma?

Stigma is defined as “a mark of shame or discredits ”.

When a society has negative beliefs about a group of people, they are projecting a stigma upon those people. When a person suffers from certain health statuses, such as mental health disorders, other people almost immediately form certain beliefs about them. Generally, these beliefs are based on assumptions, generalizations, and preconceived notions rather than based on cold hard facts.

Education about topics and behaviors that result in stigma can lessen the impact that stigma has on dependent groups of people.

People who engage in certain marginalized behaviors like drug and alcohol abuse will likely face stigma from the population at large. Discrimination, prejudice, rejection, and avoidance are all results of the stigma of addiction.

The general public, friends and loved ones will often harbor negative feelings and thoughts toward someone struggling with drug and alcohol addiction and this will create stigma. Should this stigma be allowed to carry on, it will only make things worse for the person who is suffering.

Reasons For Stigma

Though stigma grows from misguided beliefs and assumptions, there are things that have precipitated that attitude. Unless we address them, we cannot hope to overcome them.

Let’s take a look at some of the factors that have contributed to the stigmatization associated with drug and alcohol addiction.


We all know words can carry strong meaning and this is very much the case when we think of the words associated with addiction.

Many of the words used to refer to people with various addictions are stigmatizing in themselves and it can be difficult to navigate the waters surrounding these issues. Using this unhelpful language can result in preventing people who need help from getting it.

A study carried out in 2010 found that the wording used to describe individuals resulted in different perceptions formed by mental health professionals.

Researchers described one person as a “substance abuser” and the other person as “having a substance abuse disorder”.

But, just how different were these hypothetical people perceived based on these descriptions?

People referred to as “substance abusers” were considered:

  • A threat to society
  • Deserving of punitive action
  • Not reactive to treatment
  • Entirely to blame for their addictions

If even trained professionals felt differently about each of these hypothetical people, it’s understandable that a layperson would feel differently as well. However, changing the way in which we refer to people suffering from addiction can also change the way we perceive them resulting in less stigma associated with their addictions.


Drug use and excessive alcohol use has often been associated with certain criminal activities, such as trafficking, prostitution, robbery, and violence. With these crimes associated with substance abuse, it’s easy to see why most countries passed anti-drug legislation to criminalize drugs.

Unfortunately, this was done without a clear understanding of addiction. We’ll dive down a bit deeper into that below but for now, it’s crucial to understand that addiction is multi-faceted. While the first use of drugs and alcohol is a clear choice, it doesn’t often remain that way.

When someone with a substance abuse disorder is criminalized for their health problems, this has many negative ramifications. Having a criminal record makes it difficult if not impossible to find a job, receive government benefits, secure housing or many other things that help establish them in society.

The inability to succeed in long-term recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, unfortunately, leads many people to relapse.


When people suffering from addiction cannot maintain a “normal” life, they often return to what they know best: drugs and alcohol.

There are many factors that play a role in addiction. Without assistance, most people are unable to recover fruitfully and sustainably. Because society has a skewed perception of addiction, there’s a widespread unwillingness and resistance to helping people living under the shadow of this disease. This, of course, simply keeps the vicious circle rolling.

Understanding Addiction

One of the main things that cause stigma-related issues is wrongly held beliefs.

Many American still strongly believe that people with addictions simply lack self-control. Also, many people link drug and alcohol abuse and any subsequent addiction to a person’s moral character. Many instinctively believe that someone who uses illicit substances has questionable morals.

Thankfully, scientific research into addiction is helping to change these beliefs, albeit slowly. Over the past few decades, much light has been shed on the murky sphere of addiction.

Research has demonstrated that although a person voluntarily chooses to begin using drugs or alcohol, over time the use of these substances alters the brain. These changes in the brain result in a chronic brain disease that causes people to compulsively seek and use drugs even when they know the harm that will come to them and the people around them. The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that these changes in brain chemistry through addiction are difficult to undo and are often a core reason for relapse during recovery.

Although modern science has given us a clearer picture of addiction, many people still hold on to the same negative and antiquated view of addiction. Too many people don’t completely understand how addiction affects those who suffer from it. They hold beliefs which result in a stigma that causes people struggling with addiction to be quiet and avoid treatment that could help.

Impact of Stigma

When people who are living with addiction feel stigmatized by those around them, they are affected in many ways. Stigma plays a large role in a person’s willingness to seek help and follow through with treatment. It also negatively impacts a person’s relationships and it causes significant damage to their self-esteem.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health conducted a study regarding the stigma associated with drug and alcohol addiction. Researchers found that society as a whole has more negative views toward people suffering through addiction than they did toward people living with other forms of mental illness. Also, most people wouldn’t support policies and programs that would give assistance like housing, insurance and employment options to people who use drugs.

As you can see, the stigma associated with drug and alcohol addiction runs deep and this is detrimental to those who need help the most.

Social Impact of Stigma

When people have problems, they generally reach out to friends and loved ones around them for help. Because of societal stigma, people in the throes of addiction typically don’t reach out to those around them. Often, they feel as though their addiction turns them into an outcast.

People suffering without the help they need easily become victims of chronic stress, loneliness, and depression. This chronic stress results in further use of substances, deeper addiction, and a higher risk of relapse.

The societal stigma of addiction pushes people who struggle with addiction to suffer alone. They try to hide the problems they are facing and often turn to more drugs or alcohol to ease their fears.

With no one to reach out to, they are alone in a tumultuous cycle that they feel unable to escape.

Impact Of Self Stigma

Anyone can fall victim to drug and alcohol addiction and people trapped in this situation likely once held the same beliefs that they fear others hold about them now. Because they were once “outside” addiction, they might perceive stigma even if there’s none present in their circle.

In addition to these beliefs, people living with addictions will quite likely feel ashamed of their addiction. They will have negative beliefs and assumptions about themselves and their own self-stigmatization can result in them not seeking the treatment they need and failing to reach out to others around them for help.

Self-stigmatization can be just as detrimental as a societal stigma to the person living with addiction.

Stigma As a Roadblock to Treatment

When societal stigma and self-stigma prevent people from seeking treatment for their addiction, this is expensive and not just for the person who is experiencing it. In the United States, there are many costs related to untreated addiction. These costs include criminal justice, healthcare and lost productivity amounting to $510 billion a year.

Often, when a person living with addiction does reach out for help, they face more discrimination due to stigma. A study performed in 2000 found that when nurses are tasked with treating patients with drug and alcohol addiction, they are uncomfortable doing so. The nurses characterize the patients as “immoral, having no character, and unlikely to recover”. When societal stigma affects the way in which healthcare providers approach and treat patients who suffer from addiction, it’s not surprising people are discouraged from seeking care in the first place.

Stigma Reduces The Benefit Of Treatment

When a person struggling with addiction seeks out treatment, it should be cause for celebration. Instead, this person is often met with disbelief and then disgust so furthering the stigmatization they have been feeling about their situation.

It’s tough for someone in the throes of addiction to reach out for help and knowing that they are likely to be judged for their situation makes things even more difficult.

Though there is a stigma associated with the use of drugs and alcohol, a lot of people suffer silently and stoically. When they do speak up, they are labeled and met with more societal stigma.

When someone with a drug or alcohol addiction is trying to better themselves through treatment but still feel as though they are alone due to stigma, the treatment isn’t likely to be as beneficial to the patient.

Fighting The Stigma Of Drug And Alcohol Addiction

With perceived and real stigma coming from all directions including family, friends, medical professionals, and society at large, it can feel almost hopeless to a person living with addiction.

No one appreciates being devalued, judged or cast aside due to the circumstances of their life, especially when those circumstances are beyond their control.

Fighting against the stigma associated with drug and alcohol addiction is vital to ensure people in these situations get the care and treatment they need so that they can be encouraged to seek and engage in meaningful recovery.

How do we overcome the stigma, though?

It’s essential to educate ourselves on the true causes of addiction, but that takes time.

There are some more immediate things we can do to reduce the stigmatization associated with drug and alcohol abuse:

  • We can be sure we are compassionate and supportive.
  • When people are in vulnerable situations, we can be kind to them.
  • We can refrain from judgment when people are talking to us about addiction.
  • We can focus on the person in front of us, not the substances they abuse.
  • We can aim to treat all people with dignity and respect regardless of their situation.
  • We can be mindful of the words we use to describe people living with addiction.
  • We can focus more on the facts associated with addiction instead of the beliefs and assumptions we have long held but seldom questioned.
  • We can look out for others with addiction and we can speak up if we see them discriminated against or mistreated because of their disease.

There are millions of people suffering from drug and alcohol addiction in the United States. There are plenty of treatment options available to them to help them on their road to recovery but several things hold them back from reaching out.

We need to end the stigma associated with drug and alcohol addiction so people who struggle with it can be treated for their disease.

At Landmark Recovery, we are dedicated to being a part of the solution by helping everyone who needs it and by crushing the stigma associated with drug and alcohol addiction. If you are interested in learning more about what Landmark has to offer, please visit our website and reach out to our Indiana treatment center admissions team today.

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.