(Translation into most languages at tab to right.)
In the Greek and Roman worlds, a stigma was a tattoo or brand, especially for a slave, identifying the person as “inferior.” As stigma moved into English, it referred to a mark you couldn’t actually see but which was nonetheless powerful. Social stigmas are based on perceivable characteristics, associated with certain behaviors that distinguish a person from other members of society. They convey disapproval and disgrace. Dis-approval. Non-approval. Dis-grace. Non-grace.
In an article on The Stigma of Addiction from Hazelden Recovery we learn: “The stigma of addiction stems from behavioral symptoms of substance use disorder…which can result in negative consequences including legal, occupational and relationship problems. Understandably, these consequences cause embarrassment and shame among those affected. They also create stigmatized attitudes and perceptions among the wider public, a response that perpetuates and exacerbates the private shame associated with drug addiction. For generations, this combination of personal shame and public stigma has produced tremendous obstacles to addressing the problem of alcoholism and addiction. Today, the stigma of addiction is seen as a primary barrier to effective addiction prevention, treatment and recovery efforts at the individual, family, societal levels. Addiction stigma prevents too many people from getting the help they need.” Yes, only one in 10 people struggling with addiction receive treatment. The article goes on to discuss the irony that many of these stigmatizing behaviors diminish and/or disappear when a person is appropriately treated in recovery.
When talking recently with some of our son’s friends, they have been unwilling to let their past drug use become public knowledge because of the potential negative repercussions they justifiably fear in their careers and relationships. How much worse would it be if they were still living with addiction? What does this say about us as individuals, communities, employers, and society in general? When an individual is seen as having a moral failure instead of a chronic health condition, stigma is the logical result. But no one makes the decision about how their brain will react to a substance and whether they will become addicted after minimal use or hate how it makes them feel and never use it again.
Negative labels stick like glue to our hearts and soul and, for those struggling with addiction and alcoholism, the personal shame becomes how they define themselves. The public stigma that follows is the tattoo they never asked to have. If we can reject stigmatizing and instead provide a safe and listening ear to those struggling with addiction, inviting them to share their stories and encourage them to consider recovery options, they may be willing to join the many people who do learn to manage their disease and successfully recover. Let’s remember that they are just as valuable and able and worthy of love – and as human – as you and me.