It wasn’t very long ago that addiction was considered a moral affliction rather than a disease. Rather than seeing addicts as suffering from a catastrophic illness, those with substance abuse problems were simply thought to be bad people who were weak of character and had no self-control. In short, addicts were seen and treated in much the same way as the mentally ill were historically seen and treated, with addicts frequently being imprisoned or herded into asylums 1. Fortunately, the advent of contemporary treatment can offer addicts a variety of effective, evidence-based therapeutic interventions and suggests a more enlightened understanding of addiction as a disease rather than being indicative of immorality.
However, recent studies show that, of the millions of Americans who are currently dependent on harmful substances, only 10 percent 2 are receiving treatment for their addictions. This means the remaining 90 percent are on track to remain in active addiction until it causes irreversible harm.
The fact that there are numerous recovery resources available and so few actually benefiting from them would seem to be a paradox, but there are actually several factors that can keep addicts out of treatment. In particular, it’s been suggested that many addicts resign themselves to continued substance abuse because they don’t want to be stigmatized for their addictions 3
, especially when the stigma could follow them into sobriety and result in discrimination or opportunities lost. Could it be that a society so intent on eradicating addiction is inadvertently sustaining the disease with their negative perceptions of addiction?
What Influences Perceptions of Addiction?
The effects of addiction have been well-documented at both the micro and macro levels. With roughly one in ten Americans over the age of 12 meeting the diagnostic criteria for a substance abuse problem, there are few who have not been affected by addiction in some way, even if only indirectly by having an addicted loved one. On a larger scale, the economic cost of addiction is astronomical, estimated at roughly half a trillion dollars per year 4 due to lost productivity, various healthcare expenses, and crime that can be attributed to addiction.
In spite of the wealth of studies that contributed to the disease model of addiction, societal perceptions have remained largely negative. Rather than thinking of addiction as a disease, people often think of addiction as moral weakness without considering how or why an individual becomes addicted; since addiction is an undesirable behavior, it’s subject to personal biases and prejudices rather than objectivity 5. There’s also a tendency for those with little personal experience with addiction to default to cultural representations, but the majority of the depictions of addicts in the media are of those who are homeless, who have committed crimes, or who are subjects of studies pertaining to drug use and diseases like hepatitis and HIV. With media portrayals of addicts being so predominantly negative, it’s difficult for the public to see people suffering from the disease of addiction in any other way. This negative imagery makes people want to distance themselves from anyone that they might associate with the depictions they’ve seen.
Gauging Societal Perceptions of Addiction
A recent study by Johns Hopkins University researchers contrasted contemporary attitudes toward the mentally ill with perceptions of addicts. According to the results of the study, the average person views the mentally ill with much more sympathy than they do people who suffer from addiction. More specifically, society tends to feel that while the mentally ill aren’t coherent or in control of their actions, an addict’s suffering is the result of his or her own moral failing 6 and weakness.
In fact, opinions of addicts are often so low that many people even oppose legislation and policies that help addicts overcome their addictions, whether it’s by allocating more money toward treatment initiatives or by making recovery more accessible to those in need. Moreover, the Johns Hopkins study found that almost 80 percent of people are unwilling to hold a position in which they would be in proximity to an addict while less than 40 percent would be unwilling to work in close proximity to someone who was mentally ill; more than 60 percent of respondents also believed that employers should be able to deny employment to an individual if he or she has a history of substance abuse.
How the Addiction Stigma Discourages Recovery
Although there are a number of other reasons why an addict might resist or reject recovery, most people suffering from addiction are aware of the low regard in which they’re held. When faced with people not wanting to work with addicts and even disagreeing with policies that would help them recover, addicts may feel like admitting their addictions would make them vulnerable to discrimination or even harassment. For addicts who have managed to retain their careers, they could be worrying that admitting their dependencies and taking a leave of absence to get treatment would mean losing their career. Alternately, an addict who has managed to keep his or her substance abuse from loved ones will likely worry about being rejected and not having a support system to which he or she could return after completing treatment.
Not every addict contracts HIV or ends up committing crimes, but they often fear that seeking treatment will result in their being viewed and treated like criminal addicts 7 portrayed by the media. Unfortunately, this has been a major factor as to why there are so few addicts seeking treatment for addiction. The only way that overtly negative public perceptions of addiction can be overcome is for addiction to be portrayed in a much more balanced way. Rather than focusing on the addicts who commit crimes or live on the streets, the media should also cover stories of recovery in order to show the public that there are many regular people who become addicted and then regain their health and independence.
There are a number of effective, evidence-based treatments and comprehensive programs that will allow those suffering from addiction to return to lives of health and happiness. At Rehab International, our priority is to help those suffering from addiction find the recovery resources that best address their needs. To speak with an admissions coordinator for a free consultation, call us and begin the healing journey today.
Written by Dane O’Leary