How to Overcome the Stereotypes of Addiction

Heroin addict.  Alcoholic.  Crack head.  

Now, close your eyes and think about the images these words brought forth when you read them.  If you’re like the majority of people, you envisioned a skinny, disheveled, homeless person.  Did you think, “junkie,” “dopehead,” “burnout,” “druggie,” or “space cadet?”  Do you even wonder why we immediately think of addicts in those terms?  

Why we continue to stick with the addiction stereotypes that have been around for decades is no mystery.  Much of this negative attitude about addicts has to do with the prevalent stigma surrounding drug and alcohol abusers.  Humans tend to follow the crowd, so to speak.  We make assumptions based on other’s assumptions, and don’t bother with the facts or ask any questions.  

Is There a Difference Between Stereotypes and Stigma?

It’s important to know the difference between these two terms and how they affect addicts before we can begin to undo the damage.

Stereotypes are preconceived ideas, opinions, images, or associations about specific social groups, cultures, countries, and more.  These can be negative, positive, or neutral.  Some of the ways a stereotype can have harmful outcomes include, but are not limited to:

  • A mom from the suburbs or a business executive will shy away from admitting their drug problems because they don’t want to be seen in the same light as a bum on the street.
  • Some people have health problems that give the same effects of being on drugs, causing these individuals to be stereotyped as an addict.

Stigma is something that is often perceived in a negative light or as something that is socially unacceptable.  Stigma is always negative.  It can be the cause of discrimination, prejudice, and rejection, and is rarely based on facts.  Some of the unfortunate results of stigma on addicts can include:

  • Addicts are perceived as lacking the willpower to stop using.  “They could quit if they wanted to.”  This lousy attitude causes millions of people to miss out on an opportunity to help someone get the treatment they need.  
  • Stigma can affect society’s perception of harm reduction initiatives such as needle exchanges, substitution therapy, and “safe rooms.”  Instead, these interventions are not supported by the public and are believed to encourage drug use.

When stereotypes and stigma prevent people from seeking or getting addiction treatment, it affects society in many ways.  Increased costs for drug-related crimes, hospitalizations, incarcerations, and lost productivity are just a few of the negative impacts we face.

How Can We Stop Stereotyping and Start Helping?

On an individual basis, there are some things we can do to overcome stereotypes and stop shaming people who are suffering addiction problems.  We can learn to treat them with respect and compassion.  Also, we can talk to others and share facts and information about the effects of drugs and why addicts can’t just stop using without professional help.  Plus, we can do the following:

  • Don’t be part of the “they get what they deserve” group.  Try to realize that no one wants to be an addict.  They didn’t wake up one day and decide that was how they wanted to ruin their life or die.  Do some research about how drugs affect the brain and gain an understanding of why addiction happens.  This might convince you to help rather than criticize.
  • Let go of the concept of “once an addict, always an addict.”  Addiction treatment programs today are evidence-based, comprehensive plans that heal a person physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  Many thousands of people are enjoying drug-free, productive lives today as a result of their time in one of these programs.
  • Support or participate in prevention and education campaigns.  Every community has local organizations that need volunteers to work with recovering addicts.  Do some research online to find other ways you can contribute.

The effort to reduce stereotypes and stigma requires a great amount of time, money, and manpower.  Likewise, the ever-increasing addiction crisis is causing a financial burden and is overextending law enforcement manpower.  

But, there are some positive developments recently that promise to make a difference.  For instance, the national Prescription Drug Monitoring Program will prevent “doctor-shopping” and help identify potential drug seekers or over-prescribers.  

Also, there is a push by some legislators and policymakers to provide treatment for some of the 2.3 million people who are incarcerated in the U.S.  About 65% of these individuals met the criteria for substance abuse disorder.  These individuals often return to their drug-related crime and activity within thirty days after being released.  Addiction treatment is less costly than incarceration.  Also, it will help return these people to being productive members of society.

If you know a drug addict, talk to them about getting help.  Find out how to conduct an intervention if you think it is needed.  Don’t just turn your back and let them figure it out on their own.  Take one small step toward eliminating the stereotypes of addiction.

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Dan and his team of addiction professionals at Elevate, have helped hundreds of people to beat addiction every year.