How to Reduce the Guilt, Shame, and Stigma of Addiction

Nzinga Harrison, MD
July 20, 2020

Despite substance use disorders being declared a public health crisis in the United States, harmful stereotypes continue to persist and negatively impact people with addiction. As a result of stigma, many people hide their substance use because they fear social rejection or criminal punishment. These feelings of guilt and shame only allow addiction to continue and for some people, it may even intensify their substance use.

For some people, the lack of social understanding and support may cause them to avoid seeking treatment because they feel that getting treatment would negatively impact their jobs or other peoples’ opinions of them. Stigma creates barriers to recovery, which only allows the cycle of addiction to carry on and worsen.

Eliminating stigma is one of the most important steps in supporting people with addiction. As individuals, there are small but meaningful actions that can make a big difference. You can help break the stigma surrounding substance use disorders by:

  • Recognizing that addiction is a medical condition

    • Due to ongoing social stigma, addiction is often viewed as a moral failing that results from a person’s bad choices or lack of willpower.

    • In reality, medical research has proven that addiction is a complex brain illness that can affect any person, regardless of their character, strength, or lifestyle.

    • Learn more about the causes of addiction and how it impacts peoples’ lives.

  • Communicating with compassion and respect

    • Changing your word choice to neutral and non-judgmental terms is helpful because it removes negative associations that come with certain words.

    • Let individuals with substance use disorders choose how they are described and respect their choice.

    • Using person-first language to talk about addiction and substance use reflects that a person has a problem, rather than blaming the individual as the reason for the problem. The National Institute on Drug Abuse recommends these terms:

      • Instead of saying “addict” or “junkie,” say “person with substance use disorder.”

      • Instead of saying “alcoholic” or “drunk,” say “person with alcohol use disorder.”

      • Instead of saying “drug abuse,” say “drug misuse” or “harmful use.”

      • Instead of saying “alcohol abuse,” say “unhealthy alcohol use” or “harmful alcohol use.”

  • Having open conversations about addiction with loved ones, friends, and your community

    • Stigma will persist if we don’t openly discuss addiction and substance use. Talking about addiction as a medical condition helps to humanize it and remove negative connotations from the general public opinion.

By pushing addiction out of the shadows and into compassionate conversations, more people with substance or alcohol use disorders may feel comfortable seeking treatment and starting their recovery journey.

If you need help with your substance use disorder, we are here to help you build your confidence and momentum towards the future you want. We provide treatment services for adults with alcohol, opioid, and other substance use disorders. We are currently located in Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, and Washington.

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Nzinga Harrison, MD

Dr. Harrison serves as the Chief Medical Officer for Eleanor Health with more than 15 years experience practicing medicine. She is a double-board certified physician with specialties in general adult psychiatry and addiction medicine. Dr. Harrison has spent her career as a physician treating individuals from marginalized communities with substance use and other psychiatric disorders. As a physician executive, she has served as Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer roles committed to creating and improving systems-based delivery of psychiatric and substance abuse care. She is a vocal advocate for stigma reduction, and is passionate about the necessity for whole-person care as individuals and communities seek to recover from and prevent substance use disorders.

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