Addiction is a complex and chronic disorder of the brain. Despite the many scientific research advances regarding substance use disorder, addictions are often accompanied by a sense of shame, social, or self-stigmatization. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a primary chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry.”

Scientific studies have uncovered the connection between long term substance abuse and how it impacts the circuits in the brain, resulting in a number of biological, psychological, social, and even spiritual symptoms. In other words, individuals suffering from addiction will pathologically seek the rewarding effects of intoxication while using substances to cope with stress and other unpleasant emotions.

Despite scientific research backing the disease model of addiction, society continues to stigmatize addicts and substance use disorder as a whole. Many members of society believe that addiction is a matter of moral failing rather than a scientifically proven mental illness. According to a study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the stigmas associated with addiction have led to addicts being viewed more negatively than those suffering from mental illness. These stigmas are problematic for a number of reasons. Most importantly, the stigmas associated with addiction often prevent individuals with substance use disorder from seeking help in order to avoid being identified as an addict.

Before we can dive into finding a way to eradicate the stigmas surrounding addiction, we must ask ourselves why is addiction stigmatized? Here are a few factors that propel the stigmas surrounding addiction.

Societal Judgement

One of the most prevalent factors contributing to the stigmas surrounding addiction is societal judgment. It is not uncommon for society to cast judgment on people, places, and situations that they do not understand. In fact, due to the behavioral changes associated with addiction many individuals view substance use disorder as an issue of morality rather than a mental health disorder. These specific judgments have led to many individuals perceiving addicts to be bad people, rather than sick people.

Unfortunately, our scientific understanding of addiction has not shifted the attitude towards individuals suffering from addiction. The evolving information about addiction has had very little effect on mass judgments, which remain predominantly negative. Society has a tendency to propel enduring popular opinions, or judgments, due to ignorant and uneducated preconceived notions. For example, we have witnessed the lasting struggle of women’s suffrage and racial inequality due to the popular opinion of society. These unrelenting judgments are some of the most difficult factors to overcome.

Discrimination Within the Medical Community

Historically speaking, it took many years before addiction was classified as a disease within the medical community. More often than not, addicts were sent off to the hospital to help mitigate dangerous withdrawal symptoms and then continued their care in a mental health asylum. The vast majority of primary care physicians and general practitioners were not equipped with the proper education or resources to deal with addiction treatment. Furthermore, when Oxycontin abuse skyrocketed in the 1990s doctors were faced with addicted individuals attempting to con them into writing prescriptions for addictive substances.

The opioid epidemic certainly resulted in many physicians viewing addicts as liars and liabilities for their practices. This vicious cycle propelled the stigma surrounding addiction today. As our trusted doctors and nurses failed to understand the true nature of substance abuse disorder, the average American began to follow suit. While there have been many advancements within the medical community acknowledging the biological and psychological effects of addiction, discrimination still exists in healthcare industries. However, the Obama Administration took the lead by encouraging physicians to become certified to prescribe Buprenorphine and other addiction treatment drugs. The strategy to combat the opioid epidemic along with advancements in the scientific community has encouraged the medical community to take a more sympathetic approach to treat addiction as a disease.

Criminal and Negative Behaviors Associated with Substance Abuse

One of the most perplexing side effects of the disease of addiction is the inability for the addict to stop using the substance despite negative consequences. Addiction is a fatal and progressive disorder that is unsustainable and inevitably results in negative financial, relational, personal, physical, emotional, communal, spiritual, and even criminal consequences. For the non-addict, these seemingly insane behaviors appear to be a failure in upbringing or morality. The truth is, addiction doesn’t discriminate. Oftentimes, addiction will affect some of the most prestigious members of society and even these individuals are susceptible to engaging in risky and desperate behaviors.

Long-term substance abuse often results in addicts turning to criminal activity in order to maintain their addiction. Meanwhile, criminal activity is a common focus in media portrayals of addicts. As a result, most of society views addicts as untrustworthy, dangerous, manipulative, and unproductive members of society. Furthermore, the general consensus is that addicts should be punished rather than treated for their mental illness. These misunderstood factors often propel the stigma around substance use disorder and prevent many individuals from seeking the help they need.

Ending the Stigma

Considering the outdated judgments, discrimination within the medical community, and association with negative behaviors, it is no secret that many struggling addicts are hesitant to seek help. Individuals struggling with substance abuse disorder often encounter barriers cultivated by addiction stigmas each and every day. These misguided stigmas make it especially difficult to encourage adequate treatment over punishment. Many recovering addicts find themselves trapped in a stigmatized system of crime, punishment, and isolation, without ever receiving help.

In order to end the stigma surrounding addiction, we must strive for more education about the disease itself.  Preconceived notions and discriminatory opinions surrounding addiction are a direct result of inaccurate media portrayals, enduring traditions, and ignorant opinions. The best way to combat the addiction stigma is to educate the public about the true nature of the disease of addiction and extend the gift of addiction treatment programs. Given the present addiction epidemic across the U.S., we must begin the healing process by encouraging compassion and understanding of the psychological, physiological, spiritual, and behavioral effects of addiction.