Addiction is not a “moral failing” on the part of the individual, which was the prevailing belief throughout history but rather, it is a chronic brain disease and a broader community issue that everyone must deal with. Despite growing evidence and acceptance of these facts, those addicted are still facing the debilitating effects of stigma.
Individuals experiencing mental health and addiction struggles most often face two different types of stigma: social stigma and self-stigma. Social stigma refers to beliefs society holds – i.e. seeing addiction as a moral deficiency. Self-stigma refers to beliefs individuals have about themselves. Most self-stigma stems from social stigma: “Society sees me a certain way, now I see myself that way. I am an addict and that is all I will ever be.” They feel as if they are being defined by their diagnoses and stigma. To escape the pain of experiencing stigma, people will isolate themselves. Addiction is sometimes described as a disease of isolation and societal stigma basically encourages this isolation.
You are not defined by addiction.
You are not your diagnosis. And there is hope for you - whether you feel discouraged in seeking treatment, are still suffering, actively involved in treatment or are in long-term recovery. Of course, guilt and shame exist and we all carry these emotions with us. Guilt can be described as “I did something bad” and shame can be described as “I am inherently flawed – I am bad.” Carrying shame around can be destructive for you. Most often, individuals experience shame as a result of social stigma and self-stigma. However, hope is more powerful than shame and vulnerability may be the solution. Telling someone we need help is the most vulnerable and courageous thing we can do. And, when we are met with empathy and compassion as a response, we find hope. When expressing vulnerabilities with another individual, this is the chance to be honest about your feelings and use this opportunity to learn ways to change your attitudes and beliefs about who and what you are. There is a term to describe this type of experience, it is known as the “instillation of hope.” This refers to confidence in the ability to resolve issues and grow when offered support and empathy.
At Project Courage, we take a multidimensional approach to treatment for those experiencing mental health and addiction issues. We allow individuals support to develop emotionally, socially, physically, cognitively, morally and spiritually. This type of approach allows a client to navigate away from the isolation of addiction and stigma and feeling defined by their diagnoses. Clients feel the “instillation of hope.”
So, we have hope, now how do we defeat stigma?
YOU HAVE A VOICE. There is a saying in the recovery community: what grows in the dark will die in the light.The solution lies in starting the conversation and spreading the message that recovery is possible – that no one has to be defined by addiction. In November 2016, the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released a report on alcohol, drugs and health, which details a vision for the future of our nation and outlines prevention, treatment and recovery options. The report speaks to the biased views of our society – specifically, the views towards addicts and the experiences of those suffering from the disease of addiction. I believe there is hope for change on these issues. As an example of the impetus toward change, on October 4, 2015, tens of thousands of people attended the UNITE to Face Addiction rally in Washington, D.C. – an event symbolizing the new movement which is emerging in America. People in recovery, their family members and other supporters are coming together to diminish the stigma and the discrimination associated with substance use disorders and spread the message that people do recover.
A new world is emerging – one where opinions and beliefs about addiction are changing – and the change is mostly because of the dissemination of accurate factual information about addiction as well as the changing demographics of addiction. The growing networks of Recovery Community Organizations (RCOs), which have multiplied across the country, are generating a resounding message – not just to those who impacted by addiction but to society as a whole. “Universality” is the sense that others share similar problems and feelings. As the conversation is started and individuals are met with empathy and compassion, universality is established.
The most valuable advice that I can offer you as a Social Worker is: you are not alone. So, be proud of who you are because you are so much more you’re your diagnosis. Speak your truth. Start the conversation.
By: Jenna Deluca