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Removing the Stigma of Addiction

Plus, How to Tell if Someone’s Addicted

People who have an addiction are often looked down upon and blamed for their addiction, rather than being seen as people who are ill and in need of medical care. Removing the stigma around addiction is one of the first steps to addressing this growing problem.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 20.5 million American adults aged 12 and older are battling a substance abuse disorder. About 15.1 million reported alcohol addiction while 2.1 million had a substance abuse disorder involving prescription pain relievers. Yet despite these staggering numbers, the stigma of addiction persists. In a recent study, fewer than 1 out of 5 Americans are willing to closely associate with someone suffering with drug addiction.

“The stigma can easily prevent persons from seeking help from family, friends and even from healthcare providers, ” says Jeffrey Johnson, DO, medical director of inpatient addiction and substance abuse services at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital.

Another thing to consider is sedative and stimulant addiction risks, too. The similar issues of abuse, tolerance, addiction and toxicity may occur with these drugs. Treatment providers often have to sort out the multiple drugs used simultaneously, adds Dr. Johnson.

Removing the Stigma

Ultimately, the stigma surrounding addiction can lead to guilt and shame, causing people to hide their addiction and prevent them from getting the treatment they need.

To help stop perpetuating the stigma of addiction:

  • Get to know more. Just like heart disease impacts the heart, addiction results in physiological changes in the brain. Causes of addiction can be extremely complex and vary by the type of addiction. Understanding how and why addiction occurs can help reduce the stigma surrounding it.
  • Talk about it. Discussing addiction helps humanize the disease and shows recovery is possible.
  • Show compassion. If you notice any signs of addiction, say something. People with addiction need help and support, not scorn and shame.

Types of Addiction

  • Alcohol addiction, or alcoholism, is the most common substance abuse disorder in the U.S.
  • Opioid addiction. From prescription pills to synthetic fentanyl, opioids come in many forms. The body does not become immediately addicted to opioids, but builds a tolerance over time, requiring increasing amounts.
  • Process addictions. Gambling, shopping, exercise, sex and food can all cause addiction, and these types of addiction currently affect as many as 9 million American adults. Additionally, an estimated one in 10 young people have a video game addiction.

How to help those battling addiction:

  • Recognize addiction is a medical condition.
  • Communicate with care. People are often ashamed of their addiction, which results in denial or lying. It is best to communicate with care and compassion. Choose your words carefully and avoid hurtful language.
  • Offer information and help to find professional resources. Find the appropriate treatment by seeking a complete psychiatric evaluation and the support of a professional care team that specializes in addiction.
  • Continue to provide support. Recovery is a journey. Offer to attend support group or counseling sessions together. If your loved one relapses, help guide them back towards their treatment plan.
  • Set boundaries. If they continue to refuse treatment, be loving but firm.
  • Remain committed. Remove alcohol and other temptations from your house and social life. Encourage other healthy activities, like exercise or a hobby that you both enjoy.

“Sometimes the substance use problem is a ‘family secret’ not known outside the family. In this situation, the family member is the critical link,” says Dr. Johnson. Remember, addiction is an illness and not something that should cause shame. If you or someone you love has an addiction, help is available. The first step is to admit there is a problem and seek treatment.

For emergent situations, please call 911 or head to your local emergency department.

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