Eliminating Stigma: The Disease of Addiction

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When a close friend finds out they have Alzheimer’s disease or cancer, our hearts instantly stir with empathy and compassion. We begin thinking of ways we can help our friend and their family prepare for a long health battle.

We try to learn more about their illness; we connect with others who may be going through the same situation; and we join causes and activities to show support for them.

It may take a team to help with appointments, medications, transportation, finances and encouragement to remain strong during the journey. Because our friends and family are incredibly valuable to us, we care deeply when they experience chronic illness.

Addiction is a Chronic Disease

Whether it’s mild overuse of alcohol or heavy substance use disorders, scientists and the medical community overwhelmingly agree that addiction is a chronic disease of the brain just like diabetes is a disease of the endocrine system.

Prior to scientific evidence, individuals who suffered from addiction were labeled drunks, druggies, addicts, alcoholics or worse. With these labels, society asserted those suffering possessed moral failures or a poor upbringing.

“People often picture someone who struggles with substances as the homeless person on the street corner begging for money for drugs,” explains Kelly Dunn, M.D. executive director of clinical treatment at NCWR. “In fact, addiction affects all socioeconomic classes. For the majority of those suffering with a substance use disorder, you would not be able to pick them out from a crowd or even recognize it in a friend or family member. Many suffer in silence due to the stigma and they learn to hide it very well.”

Society reinforces harmful addiction and mental health stereotypes in movies, halloween costumes, video games and in the news. These inaccurate depictions infiltrate our thoughts, language, education and even our criminal justice and health care systems.

Fear-driven images cause many to pull away rather than leaning in for support. Knowledge and understanding of addiction are the antidote to fear.

Internalized Stigma

These stigmas not only change how we care for and interact with individuals suffering from addiction, but also how they treat themselves. When they feel judged, it becomes easier to avoid treatment and hide in shame which continues the vicious downward cycle.

Studies consistently demonstrate that positive, healthy social interaction is a protective force from developing chemical dependency. When exposed to negative or stigmatizing social environments, individuals suffering from addiction often cope by reverting to unhealthy choices.

As the disease progresses, they can lose touch with their families, feel pushed out of society and experience isolation and profound loneliness.

When addiction reaches a life-threatening level, individuals may seek help in an emergency room. Unfortunately, even healthcare professionals can sometimes become indifferent or judgmental, causing individuals to avoid life-saving care.

It’s important for nurses, physicians, as well as healthcare staff and security to have the latest training on how to care for patients with chronic diseases like addiction. These patients have valuable life stories and deserve compassionate care.

Since 2013, Oklahoma State University has been training medical students with a mandatory addiction medicine curriculum. Raising awareness of addiction and stigmas at the physician level has made a significant impact on Oklahoma communities.

“Removing stigma starts with teaching addiction as a disease, alongside illnesses like diabetes and hypertension. At OSU, we strive to learn person first language and we teach that to the next generation,” shares Jason Beaman, D.O., executive director of training and education at NCWR. “Finally, removing stigma requires treating all patients with dignity and respect and this is something OSU has always excelled in.”

Disease Does Not Define Identity

Terms such as user, addict and abuse have negative implications that a person is flawed or undisciplined and is making the choice to use substances when many times they are held captive by their disease.

Avoid using labels that define people by their disease. Instead, consider phrases that describe the disease they are suffering from. For example:

· Instead of “He is an opioid addict,” consider, “He is suffering from opioid use disorder.”

· Instead of “They abuse drugs,” consider, “They have substance use disorders.

· Instead of “He is a drunk,” consider, “He suffers from alcohol use disorder.”

· Instead of “She is a druggie,” consider, “She suffers from addiction.”

· Instead of “She is clean,” consider, “She is sober.”

Help Eliminate Stigma

· Understand that addiction is a chronic brain disease that is treatable.

· Begin transforming your thoughts and words into healthy alternatives.

· See people for who they are and not their disease.

· Show the same level of kindness and support as those with other chronic illnesses.

Through addiction counseling and behavioral therapy, patients can reverse the damage of stigmas and create a healthy environment for successful recovery.

Contact the NCWR Addiction Recovery Clinic at OSU at 918-561-1890 to schedule an appointment. In case of a medical emergency, please call 911. For immediate and confidential emotional support, please call 988 to reach the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

Additional Information and Resources