There’s still a lot of critical judgments about addiction. Many people don’t understand that it’s a brain disease and not something as simple as a lack of willpower. Even individuals who suffer from substance use disorder (SUD) or alcohol use disorder (AUD) sometimes struggle with what they’re going through, including using outdated language like “addict” or “alcoholic” to describe themselves, as if their disease is their entire identity. So what does it take to overcome the stigma of addiction?
Addiction as a Brain Disease: Why This Definition Matters
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that “1 in 7 Americans reports experiencing a substance use disorder. There’s not one single driving factor that leads to addiction. Some people may use drugs to help cope with stress, trauma, or to help with mental health issues. Some may even develop opioid use disorder after misusing opioids they are prescribed by doctors. In any case, using drugs over time makes it easier to become addicted.”
The CDC provides a simple breakdown of how people develop SUD and AUD, which we provide verbatim:
- When people take drugs or use alcohol, the brain is flooded with chemicals that take over the brain’s reward system and cause them to repeat behaviors that feel good but aren’t healthy.
- The brain adapts to continued use by developing a tolerance, which means it takes more of a substance to feel the same result.
- Not only does this lessen the brain’s ability to resist temptation, but it can also affect the amount of pleasure a person receives from normal, healthy activities like enjoying food or the company of others.
The CDC also points out that “Addiction is a disease, not a character flaw. People suffering from SUDs and AUDs have trouble controlling use even though they know substances are harmful. Overcoming a SUD is not as simple as resisting the temptation to take drugs through willpower alone. Recovery may involve medication to help with cravings and withdrawal as well as different forms of therapy. It may even require checking into a rehabilitation facility. Recovery can be challenging, but it’s possible.”
Defining addiction as a brain disease and clarifying that it’s incurable but treatable is the first step toward reducing stigma. After all, people with physical ailments such as diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses need proper medical care to manage their conditions effectively, too. But if someone feels discriminated against or judged because of their problem, the less likely they’ll admit to it and seek treatment.
Unfortunately, as Johns Hopkins Medicine states, “rates of stigma are extremely high both in the general public and within professions whose members interact with people with addiction, including the health care professions.” Further, “research demonstrates that stigma damages the health and well-being of people with substance use disorder and interferes with the quality of care they receive in clinical settings.”
So if someone is also facing judgment and discrimination in a health care setting, it makes it far more challenging to turn to these professionals to get quality treatment. Many institutions are doing considerable work to help people reframe the conversation about addiction and treatment.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) points out that “to eliminate the stigma surrounding substance use disorders, we need to see these disorders for what they are: chronic, treatable medical conditions. People with substance use disorders deserve compassion and respect—not blame for their illness.”
NIDA also stresses that the language of addiction needs to evolve as well to reduce the stigma. It provides a detailed breakout of proper language to use when talking about people with SUD and AUD.
Overcoming the Stigma of Addiction
In December 2023, the New York Times released a comprehensive article about the addiction crisis in the U.S. It highlighted many key points to help reduce the impact of the disease. At press time, approximately 48 million Americans live with addiction. The authors identified many pivotal factors that could help them, including:
- Use scientific evidence to build programs that create more successful recovery.
- Expand the workforce within hospitals and rehabilitation centers.
- Resolve the complex funding issues, including insurance, related to SUD and AUD treatment.
- Address the problems affecting individuals in the justice system.
- Demonstrate clearer viability of proper medication-assisted treatment combined with alternative treatment philosophies.
- Have more agencies—including law enforcement, public health officials, and harm reduction organizations—work together.
But most importantly, the article notes, is to “humanize” people to overcome the stigma of addiction. “Instead of making good treatment difficult to obtain, policymakers and providers should strive to make it as easy and straightforward as possible. Clinics should welcome walk-ins. Medication should be cheap or free,” the article states. “Above all, patients should be met with acceptance instead of judgment. Even relapses should be treated as part of the recovery process, not cause for punishment.”
Find Progressive Solutions at Willingway
For more than 50 years, the board-certified professionals at Willingway’s Georgia and Florida locations have specialized in addiction treatment for the whole person—mind, body, and spirit. We understand there are numerous contributing factors to addiction. Our philosophy of evidence-based addiction treatment is designed to create an individualized continuum of care plan that includes therapeutic techniques and effective relapse prevention tools to help you design a better life.