Overcoming the Stigma of Drug Addiction

Nationwide, an estimated 23.5 million people are addicted to drugs, alcohol or both. According to the CDC, 29.1 million people are diagnosed with diabetes. Yet if you had the choice of telling family and friends that you were a diabetic or a drug addict, which would you choose?

It’s astonishing that a disease that affects almost as many people as diabetes still retains such a heavy stigma that people prefer to hide its effects rather than seek treatment. The stigma around addiction and mental illness is so strong that people will go to great lengths to hide their disease. They seek medical treatment far from their homes, attend 12-step meetings in different towns and hide behind false identities, compounding the shame and stigma of drug addiction.

The stigma of drug addiction has deep roots in both the Puritan culture that founded America and Victorian morals that influenced Western society since the mid 1800s. Today, despite efforts to end the stigma of addiction and mental illness, its pervasive effects continue.

Sometimes, by studying the reasons why something is the way it is, we can learn enough to change it. Hopefully, by learning more about drug addiction stigmas and their effects on both society and individuals, people can work toward eliminating the stigmas surrounding addiction, recovery and treatment.


The Stigma of Addiction and Mental Illness is Still Prevalent

The stigma of drug addiction is so strong that according to an article published by Johns Hopkins, people are more likely to view drug addiction negatively than mental illness. The article, which quotes a study published in Psychiatric Services, states that society isn’t sure whether to view drug addiction as a disease to be treated or a moral failure to be shunned.

According to this article, drug addiction stigmas are deeply entrenched in society. Even by today’s standards, when many public figures are willing to speak out about their struggles with mental illness and drug addiction, addicts are still viewed less favorably than the mentally ill.

impossible-to-recoverThe study’s authors asked 709 people about their attitudes toward drug addiction and mental illness. Their findings underscore the deeply entrenched view of addicts as moral failures that remains prevalent in society.

  • Only 22 percent of respondents said they would be willing to work closely with someone diagnosed with a drug addiction. However, 62 percent would be willing to work closely with someone diagnosed with mental illness.
  • 64 percent said employers should be able to deny healthy benefits to people with addiction. Only 25 percent felt the same away about mental illness.
  • 3 in 10 people surveyed still believe it is impossible to recover from drug addiction or mental illness.

It’s clear that despite the efforts of doctors, advocates for the mentally ill and for people in recovery, and many others, the stigma over addiction and mental illness remains.

Drug Addiction Social Stigma: Criminals

Perhaps part of the reason why drug addiction retains its stigma while the stigma toward mental illness has faded somewhat is the continued criminalization not only of people who deal drugs, but also of people who take drugs.

Drug addiction remains one of the last illnesses slapped with a criminal label. Courts not only sentence dealers, they sentence users, too.

Someone caught using drugs, however, is in a far different situation from someone manufacturing or selling drugs on the streets. Users may in fact be addicts, driven to continue using despite the threat of criminal prosecution, yet these people are also labeled criminals. Many face additional hurdles once they’re released from jail by having a criminal record and needing to overcome substance abuse.

Drug Addiction Stigma: Label for Life

Another problem facing drug addicts is that the criminal justice system not only punishes drug addicts for using, but it also labels them for life.

Many addicts find themselves facing drug court, in which they’re given a choice of time in jail or sentencing to a rehab facility for treatment. If they agree to enter treatment, the label of addict follows them publicly for some time.


If they fail to complete treatment, they’re faced with even more hurdles than others who relapse. They may find themselves back in jail with an even harsher sentence. Family members, believing in the judge’s wisdom that forced treatment might work, are even more disappointed when it fails.

By pushing drug users through the criminal court system, society continues to treat drug addicts like criminals to be punished rather than sick people needing treatment. If someone is arrested and shows symptoms of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, they’re usually brought to a hospital emergency room for psychiatric evaluation and treatment. They aren’t labeled for life. Instead, they are given medication and treatment. Although they may face charges for criminal activity, such as assaults or shoplifting that occur while they’re having a psychiatric episode, in general the courts are much more lenient toward someone with mental illness than someone with drug addiction.

The Media’s Portrayal of Addiction

mediaThe media tends to share only the worst stories of drug addicts in the depths of addiction, not stories of recovery. Reporting only stories of overdoses and deaths, or crimes associated with drugs, continues to perpetuate the stereotype that drug addicts are only dangerous criminals.

Many people know someone who has successfully overcome addiction. Stories of amazing recoveries are told in 12-step meeting rooms each day. Many blogs, articles and recordings are available of people who have come clean from all types of drug abuse. Unfortunately, these stories rarely – if ever – get air time outside of 12-step meeting rooms.

Society’s portrayal of addiction in media and television, as well as the criminalization of drug use, continues to perpetuate the myth that drug addiction is a sign of moral decay and failure. This problem has prevented lawmakers and others from properly funding treatment programs and providing the help addicts need.

Fighting the Good Fight: Ways to Combat Drug Addiction Stigmas

drug-addiction-stigmaThe stigma of drug addiction affects the lives of addicts in many ways. For instance, drug addicts may:

  • Delay or refuse treatment because they don’t want to be labeled an addict
  • Fail to tell family, friends or romantic interests that they were or currently are substance abusers
  • Receive inadequate medical treatment by doctors with a hidden bias against drug addicts
  • Find insurance claims denied if the claim is linked to addiction
  • Face fear and suspicion from co-workers, colleagues, classmates and others

In each of these instances, you can positively and proactively combat drug addiction stigma in your own way.

Enter Into Treatment

Calling a drug treatment facility for help may feel like you’re giving up, but in fact, you’re taking a positive step to regain your health. Treatment centers such as 12 Keys have people on staff who were drug addicts themselves. Because they know what it is like to make that first phone call, there’s absolutely no shame or blame given to drug addicts who want help. Instead, you’ll feel welcomed by people who genuinely want what’s best for you.

It’s important that people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction receive adequate treatment for their illness. If you knew someone who was having fainting spells because of diabetes, you’d rush them to the doctor’s office for medication and treatment. There’s no blame on that person even if they ate a sugary snack or didn’t take their medicine – they’re sick and need help. The same goes for someone struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.


To help end the stigma against drug and alcohol addiction, seek treatment. Show those in your life that asking for and receiving help for addiction is no different than asking for a breast cancer screening, medication for diabetes or a cast for a broken leg. These are medical emergencies that require skilled treatment in order for you to get well.

Tell People You’re a Recovering Addict

To end the personal shame about your disease, it may be time to tell those close to you that you’re in recovery. Choose your time, place and people carefully. Just as you wouldn’t tell a total stranger you’re a diabetic or have cancer, you may wish to tell only those closest to you about your disease.

It’s a good idea to discuss with your sponsor, program friends or therapist how to approach the topic with new romantic partners or friends. Sponsors and program friends can provide some of the best insight because they’ve probably lived through the same situation. Ask for their advice, but do be honest with those around you. It will help dispel the myth that drug addicts are hopeless when they see you are living in sobriety and making progress.

Insist on Adequate Medical Care

neglect-healthYour doctor or dentist needs to know about your history of drug abuse simply because some medications can trigger cravings or otherwise harm your health if you’re in recovery. Once that information is disclosed, if you feel you’re not receiving adequate medical or dental care because your health care provider is prejudiced against people in recovery, it’s time to take positive, proactive steps.

First, identify why you believe you’re not receiving adequate care. Is your doctor shrugging off all your symptoms as part of recovery when they might not be? Refusing tests or treatment?

Talk to your doctor privately about your feelings. Ask questions about your care. Advocate for yourself. If after taking these steps you still feel your doctor is treating you differently because of your addiction, it may be time to seek a new health care provider.

You have the right to receive adequate medical and dental care. Just because you took drugs in the past doesn’t mean you should neglect your health now. If your health care provider seems inadequate to the task of treating you as a former drug addict, then it’s time to find someone else who can.

Fight Denied Insurance Claims

On a good day, the insurance system is flawed. Claims can be denied for a number of reasons including clerical errors, incorrect diagnostic codes and more. If a claim is denied, it may be for any number of reasons. It’s perfectly acceptable to call your insurance company and ask for details.

If you think the claim was denied because of a previous diagnosis of mental illness or drug addiction, ask about the appeals process. Check your policy wording for information on reasons for denying claims. Write to the insurance company and advocate for yourself. You may be able to get the claim paid and raise awareness among the insurance company staff about the need for providing adequate coverage for recovered addicts.

Face Fear With Kindness

Perhaps the hardest stigma to bear is the fear and suspicion among co-workers, colleagues, friends and family.

If these people knew you when you were actively using drugs, then their suspicions may be based upon your past behavior. It’s going to take time to convince them you have sufficiently recovered from your addiction and that previous problems won’t occur again. For instance, it may take a while to convince your boss that you won’t show up late or high to an important meeting.

Put yourself in their shoes. If your behavior in the past was erratic, demonstrating consistent behavior now will go a long way toward dispelling their fears. Over time, you may erase some or all of their suspicions about recovered drug addicts.

Combating Stigma in Everyday Life

Stigma places blame or shame on people and encourages them to hide their weaknesses. The best way to combat stigmas you face as a recovering alcoholic or drug addict is to calmly, gently and kindly overcome them.


  • Change how you speak: There’s a reason why kids chant, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Words are incredibly powerful, and words spoken in jest can have the same impact as words spoken seriously. Change how you speak about addiction and mental illness. Instead of using slang terms such as crazy or loony, talk about the mentally ill. Instead of using words like druggie, talk about the illness of addiction. People can unconsciously pick up on how you speak about your illness until it becomes second nature to speak respectfully and thoughtfully about it.
  • Become a myth buster: There are so many myths about addiction that tackling them all would be a lifetime’s work. However, you can become the myth buster for your family and friends. Take advantage of opportunities to set the record straight about addiction and recovery as they arise. For example, if someone in your family says “I’ve heard that everyone relapses at some point,” you can let them know that relapse isn’t a given. Some people do recover and maintain sobriety one day at a time for the rest of their lives. Using your own experience and a gentle, loving approach, you can become the truth-sayer and myth buster of your own personal circle. It goes a long way toward shattering negative stereotypes and stigmas.
  • Make calls to newcomers: Another way to combat stigmas is to reach out to those still struggling with addiction. A new face at a local 12-step meeting is an opportunity for you to do service and help someone still struggling with their disease. Reach out to them, connect and welcome them. Ask them if they have questions or if you can help them. Break the stigma that keeps people from seeking help by offering them a lifeline when they need it.


Staying Strong and Sober

No matter how strong you are in your recovery, fighting against social stigmas can wear you down. It’s important to keep a positive attitude so you remain strong in your recovery.

  • Educate others: Keep in mind that people often form opinions based on ignorance rather than facts. You may be dealing with someone who would act differently if they knew better. Education often helps dispel stigmas.
  • Take care of yourself: Surround yourself with people who love and accept you for who you are – a recovered, sober and free former addict. These may be people from your recovery group, therapy group, or simply family and friends who know and love you for who you are.
  • Include your pets: Pets are like therapists with fur for people in recovery. Pets never look down on you for being a drug addict or an alcoholic, and they don’t buy into any myths about recovery, either. If being with animals cheers you up, then make sure you get plenty of time alone with your pets for a healthy dose of unconditional love.
  • Enlist the aid of your higher power: Talk to your higher power about how you feel, and ask for guidance. Your higher power, however you conceive or define that power, is part of your support structure in recovery. If you’re facing suspicion and fear, your higher power may be the one who needs to dispel those negative emotions in order for you to move on.
  • Speak kindly to yourself: Talk about yourself with the same love, care and respect you’d show someone else who is sick. Never use disparaging language or verbally beat up on yourself. Treat yourself with the same care and respect you would show to someone else.
  • Break the silence: Talk about your addiction and recovery. Share your story with people you know and trust. Write about it. Advocate for the mentally ill, for substance abusers and for those branded as criminals by drug use.
  • Be the solution: Show others around you that just because you used drugs in the past, it doesn’t mean your life is a waste. A positive, productive and useful life is the best way to dispel the myths of drug addiction and recovery and show others that recovery is possible.


Get Help for Your Addiction Now

Stigmas against drug addiction and mental illness keep many people from seeking the treatment they need. If you’ve hesitated to make a phone call to a recovery center, don’t hesitate any longer. There are people waiting to take your call who not only understand what you’re going through, but can also completely identify and empathize with it. They really are glad you made that call and will welcome you with open arms.

At 12 Keys, we know how hard it is to make that first phone call and say “I need help.” We staff our phones 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with caring people who can answer your questions with compassion and empathy.

12 Keys offers drug rehab, treatment for dual-diagnosis, and treatment for alcohol and other addictions. The 12 Keys model embraces the best-known treatments for addiction and incorporates detox, counseling, 12-step support, holistic treatments, exercise and healthy meals, and time for reflection and relaxation.

No two people are the same, and each person’s recovery is different. We offer an individualized approach to recovery that takes into account client preferences and needs while offering healing of mind, body, spirit and family structure that are so important for recovery.

End the stigma against drug addiction. Get help for your problems now. Contact 12 Keys today.

The Addiction Blog