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Drug Addiction Stigma

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Drug Addiction Stigma

Rachel Cobb

Marshall University


        Drug addiction plagues all socioeconomic classes in the world today.  Discussions have become more prominent than in previous decades as it becomes a growing crisis. Even though addiction is no longer whispered behind close doors, it still continues to carry the same stigma as in previous decades. Drug addiction is one of the most stigmatized conditions in Western societies, even in comparison with other stigmatized mental illnesses. (1) Stigma carries with it many negative consequences; addicts often feel condemned, shamed and isolated. Addicts refrain from seeking treatment due these possible negative consequences. Many addicts are reputable members of their community with professional careers. Due to the nature of addiction stigma, the addict is forced to live with their secret, causing their addiction to grow until it becomes unmanageable. Often the addict lands in jails, institutions or unfortunately death.  In many parts of the world, drug addiction and drug convictions are formal barriers to healthcare, housing, benefits, employment, financial loans and the right to vote; they may also result in long term surveillance, forced labour, and torture and abuse during detention. (2) Overcoming addiction is not an easy task nor is it an easy goal to achieve alone.  Many factors cause the development of addiction so it only makes sense that treatment includes a variety of modalities to be successful. While it is possible for an addict to combat addiction alone, it is very difficult. Our common language also expresses stigma:  people who use drugs are “junkies”, mothers who use drugs are “crack moms”, and abstinence is called “getting clean”- implying, of course, that when people use drugs they are dirty. (3)  The 1961 UN single Convention on Narcotic Drugs refers to drug addiction as a “serious evil for the individual” and “a social and economic danger to [hu]mankind.”(4)

        Much of the stigma associated with drug addiction is a result of the moral model of addiction, prominent in the first half of the twentieth century. The moral model of addiction views drug use as a choice and then adopts a moral stance against the choice. Addicts are considered people of bad character with antisocial values; selfish and lazy, they supposedly value pleasure, idleness and escape above all else, and are willing to pursue these at any costs to themselves or others. In contemporary Western culture, we typically hold people responsible for actions if they have a choice and so could do otherwise, and we excuse people from responsibility if we don’t. (5) The addict is blamed for their drug addiction because the moral model of addiction views it as a choice which in turns condemns the addict’s choice.  Society sees the addict as deserving harsh treatment and punishment as consequence of their choices.  In the meantime the addict loses their sense of self-worth and they begin to question their ability to escape their addiction.

        Corrigan and Penn (1999) identify three strategies aimed at reducing stigma in the mental health field: protest, education and contact.  (6) Advocacy groups have the ability to challenge what appears in the media. Overall our current media is scorned with dark images of drug addiction, causing even more bias to the stigma. When the media exhibits stories of successful addicts beating their addiction, the public perceives this person as now being a “good person.” Social workers can prompt addicts to be involved in advocacy groups where they can become representatives of their stigma. Education is also important for social workers working in the field of addiction. Social workers need to fully understand the nature of addiction and how to respond to addicts. On the issue of contact, the general public’s understanding of problem drug use is shaped by a number of influences, including the media and direct and indirect personal experiences. (7) Obtaining grant funding to a open a thrift store open to the public and ran by addicts would give the community more chances to come in contact with each other. I once worked at a thrift shop that included a large loom, when clothes did not sell they were cut into shreds of cloth. Anyone in the community could come into the store and volunteer to weave the rags into rugs. The store sold the rugs and the proceeds went towards local domestic violence shelters. Huntington could utilize this concept to create an inviting space in the community for the public to shop, providing addicts with jobs that are usually hard to come by and also providing an opportunity for volunteers to build rapport with the addicts. When addiction is faceless, it is easier for the general public to keep their biases. Once the addict has a face, name and backstory then generally the public opens up and accepts their addiction. Lisa Stone, a 35 year old addict, was picked up for prostitution in May. (9) While Lisa was being processed for jail, she requested a chance to apologize to her on family on air. WSAZ’s Tim Irr was standing nearby, he allowed Lisa a few minutes to speak into the camera. Lisa identified herself as having low self-worth and broken, she wasn’t asking for any help only an apology. The news channel reported after this segment aired, many people from the community reached out via email and phone calls.  It was Lisa’s chance to communicate with the community for the public to become empathic, understanding and accepting. If the camera man had only showed Lisa as another criminal drug addict arrested for prostitution I doubt a single email or phone call would have been made to offer assistance or support.

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