The Stigma of Addiction

By The Fix staff 09/14/20

Repeated addiction treatment is prevalent because rehabs do not adequately address each patient's medical and emotional needs.

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It takes a great deal of courage to ask for help and admit there's a problem. Photo 103779952 © Kreangkrai Indarodom | Dreamstime.com

Stigma creates harmful misconceptions surrounding people suffering with substance use disorder. A term that in the dictionary is defined as "a mark of disgrace or infamy," one that has detrimental consequences to those struggling with harmful substance use or mental health issues. Although substance misuse often causes erratic behavior and impaired judgment, research shows that most of these adverse effects stem from chemical changes to the brain. Yet, those suffering from addiction continue to be stigmatized by society.

Understandably, stigma causes embarrassment and shame among those suffering from addiction. The combination of personal shame and public stigma is considered one of the primary barriers to effective prevention and addiction treatment. This fear and shame prevent too many individuals from getting the help they need.

Studies show that only one in ten Americans suffering from substance use disorder receives professional care for addiction. Furthermore, society's stigma, negative attitude, and perceptions towards addiction keep people under-diagnosed and under-treated. Also, research and treatment programs are under-funded, especially compared to other primary health conditions currently affecting our nation. While substance abuse continues to be one of our nation's most prominent public health issues, there is a lack of effective treatment and mental health resources.

Substance Use Disorder is a Treatable Condition

Sadly enough, most people see addiction as a moral or criminal issue rather than a health one, despite scientific findings establishing the condition as physiological. Understanding the physical effects of addiction remains mostly misunderstood and widely marginalized by mainstream medical professionals. Consequently, our country continues to suffer from the devastating effects of the deadly opioid crisis. We continue to pay the high price for years of neglecting the effective and adequate healthcare resources required to confront highly stigmatized addiction issues.

Time for Change

It is time we stop seeing and treating those suffering from addiction as immoral or dangerous. No one wants to feel lesser than, especially those struggling emotionally. Drug and alcohol abuse have only increased over the last decade, and overdose rates have skyrocketed. Individuals often lose their family, friends, and careers. They continue to use drugs despite the physical and emotional consequences. Sadly, many end up losing their life to an overdose. However, this condition is not only preventable in many cases, but also treatable.

Stigma in Healthcare

The addiction and mental health crisis continues to worsen without much change in the healthcare system. It takes a great deal of courage to ask for help and admit there's a problem. It is our job as healthcare providers to respond with compassion and understanding. It is all too common for a patient admitting their substance use problem to be met with criticism and even let go by the provider due to being considered a risk. This type of medical rejection often leaves patients feeling hopeless and without the courage to seek further resources or support.

Emergency Rooms and Drug Addiction

Hospital emergency rooms receive an influx of patients suffering from opioid withdrawal. ER staff are often busy, overworked, and have to operate with limited resources, especially now during COVID-19. These facts, along with a lack of education about drug addiction, often leads to them dismissing patients --who desperately need immediate medical help--as 'drug-seeking.' Rather than turning their backs on patients, ER should have specialized staff to direct these patients into medically assisted detoxification, followed by providing mental healthcare resources. Instead, addicted people go back to the streets and continue using drugs. 

Sadly, this fault in our healthcare system perpetuates the cycle of addiction. Each time a healthcare worker misses the chance to provide the appropriate level of care, a life may be lost.

The Need for Change in Addiction Treatment

Rehab centers across the nation are overcrowded because there is not enough access to addiction treatment, let alone adequate care. Repeated treatment is also prevalent because rehabs do not adequately address each patient's medical and emotional needs. Consequently, the real issues that led to addiction go untreated, and immediate relapse is inevitable. 

To ensure those suffering from addiction or mental health conditions receive the help they need, we must fix the broken system. We need to educate the public about how different substances can affect the sympathetic nervous system and how most people affected by substance use do not have enough control over their actions and behavior.

All levels of healthcare professionals must receive training on the intersection of drug abuse and mental health, as well as how to provide adequate care for those patients. Then they can begin the healing process by treating patients compassionately and with the right level of care.

The Benefits of Medically Assisted Detox

There are many types of drug treatment centers, but medically assisted detox should be available as the standard of care. Medically assisted detox is the most effective way to help a person withdraw from opioids safely and comfortably. The chance of completing detox is almost certain, yet the healthcare system does not recognize this treatment.

As it is now, only those who have the resources to seek private treatment can receive this level of care. There is no reason why everyone in need should not receive the best form of treatment for opioid withdrawal.

Knowledge and understanding breeds empathy, an excellent tool against stigma. The sooner we educate the public, the more lives will be saved. We must change public views on substance abuse and treatment so that this crisis ends.

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