We often hear the term “breaking the stigma” associated with substance use disorder and addiction. What is stigma? The definition is “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” We know that throughout society, there is a stigma associated with drug addiction. We know that stigma contributes to those suffering from addiction from seeking help or treatment. We know that stigma is felt by the loved ones of someone that has a substance use disorder. We know that stigma contributes to shame, and that shame additionally contributes to avoidance in taking action to overcome addiction. We know that there is a stigma associated with addiction from the people that believe addiction is a choice or that someone suffering from substance use disorder is doing so due to a moral failing.  We know that terms like “addict” contribute to stigma, and that stigma of addiction goes a long way into making an individual suffering from substance misuse feel like that are a bad or worthless person. We also know that there is a stigma surrounding people in recovery from addiction.


All these are examples of how the stigma of addiction contributes to the many problems associated with addiction and recovery in society.


How can we truly begin to shatter the stigma of addiction?


  • We can understand the science of addiction. Studies upon studies demonstrate that addiction is a brain disease and that disease is complex and chronic. That the brain becomes hijacked and makes rational thoughts difficult. So, we can educate ourselves on the disease of addiction.


  • We can understand that chronic conditions require long-term treatment and support so that the sufferer can find health and wellness through appropriate management of their disease.


  • We can understand that addiction is often associated with trauma and co-occurs with other mental health conditions or mental illness.


  • We can understand that language matters and words have power and words like “addict” or “junkie” contribute to stigma.


  • We can understand that stigma occurs both overtly and covertly.


  • We can understand that addiction is the great equalizer- that anyone can suffer from substance use disorder regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, education, or socioeconomic means. Furthermore, we can understand that stigma plays a part in certain groups, like African Americans, the LGTBQ+ community, and others in specifically not talking about addiction or seeking help, as well as barriers in accessing care


  • We can understand that there is virtually no one in a society that isn’t touched by addiction either directly or indirectly- that we all know someone who has been impacted by addiction.


  • We can understand that millions of people that have been impacted by addiction have recovered and continue to recover. That millions of people live fulfilling, purpose-driven lives by managing their disease daily.


  • We can understand that there are many pathways to recovery from addiction and many ways that recovery from addiction can be achieved.


  • For those that are in recovery, we can openly talk about our struggles with addiction and our victories in recovery. We can openly share our stories to help others. For the parents, spouses, family members, and loved ones of someone that is recovery, they can do similarly in sharing their story of how addiction impacted them and how their loved one is now living in recovery. Our stories have power. And for those of us in 12 Step recovery fellowships, we can begin to understand our Traditions and just because someone speaks openly about their recovery, that does not necessarily mean they are “breaking traditions.” We can begin to understand the principle of anonymity and how it relates to the level of press, radio, film, and the internet.


  • Similarly, for those individuals and loved ones of individuals still suffering from addiction, they can openly share their struggles. They can discuss those struggles with the understanding that they or their loved one is suffering from a medical illness. They shouldn’t feel ashamed to talk about how their loved one is suffering from addiction, just as they wouldn’t if their loved one was dealing with cancer, heart disease, or diabetes.


  • We can learn about tools and gain information about addiction, making sure we are being educated on substance use disorder.


  • We can understand that addiction treatment is necessary for someone suffering from addiction, and should be a long-term, supportive process rather than thought about as a magic pill or a silver bullet where one short-term treatment stay is a cure.


  • We can understand that addiction, just like other chronic illnesses, can be a relapsing disease, where someone who is not managing their disease develops a reemergence of symptoms. Furthermore, we can recognize if or when that happens, the individual should be met with care, compassion, and necessary support.


  • We can understand that addiction is not a siloed issue, but rather something that touches all aspects of the life of the sufferer, therefore they may be also suffering from stunted development in numerous areas- relationships, education, careers, emotional maturity, and others. Therefore, treatment and support should provide appropriate resources in all aspects of the person’s journey to health.


  • We can understand that not everyone that suffers from addiction is the same, meaning that their addiction may look different via different symptoms and behaviors. We can understand that substance use disorder is a spectrum from mild to moderate to severe, so that the treatment and solutions need to meet the sufferer where they are at in terms of that spectrum.


  • We can understand that we cannot shame a person into getting well, and we should always treat them with love, compassion, dignity, and respect. However, we should also recognize the need for the loved ones of someone suffering to receive support and create boundaries for their own health and wellness.


  • We can understand that addiction is a lonely, disconnected existence, so that connection and community will always play a key role in someone’s recovery and return to health.


Everyone has a part to play in breaking the stigma of addiction. The more informed we are, the more compassion we offer, the more supportive we are in someone seeking help and treatment for their condition, the greater off we will all be within society. Together, as a community and a society, armed with the information and knowledge of addiction being a chronic illness and a medical condition, we can collectively change the way addiction is viewed, addiction is discussed, and addiction is treated throughout our communities. This will create greater access to care for those in need. This, in turn, will make it all the more possible that those still suffering from addiction will be open to seeking help, to receiving treatment, and, ultimately, to entering recovery.


If you or someone you know needs help for addiction or co-occurring disorder issues, please give us a call. Maryland Addiction Recovery Center offers the most comprehensive dual diagnosis addiction treatment in the Mid-Atlantic area. If we aren’t the best fit for you or your loved one, we will take the necessary time to work with you to find a treatment center or provider that better fits your needs. Please give us a call at (410) 773-0500 or email our team at info@marylandaddictionrecovery.com. For more information on all of our drug addiction, alcohol addiction and co-occurring disorder services and recovery resources, please visit our web site at www.marylandaddictionrecovery.com.