How Shame and Embarrassment Serve as a Barrier to Seeking Addiction Help.

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Those addicted to drugs and/or alcohol often get misunderstood and criticized in society, making it hard for many to seek help for substance dependence, according to a recent report in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.[i]

The report, penned by psychological scientist Anne C. Krendl and sociologist Brea L. Perry of Indiana University, Bloomington, stresses the need to better understand and address the stigma surrounding substance use disorder (SUD) when developing effective interventions.

Substance dependence has become a national health threat, with drug overdose rates in the United States rising over the past two decades, mainly due to opioid and stimulant use. In a recent national survey, almost 66 million Americans admitted to abusing alcohol in a one-month period, and around 20 million reported using illegal narcotics and prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons.

Exploring Stigma Dimensions: Public, Self, and Structural

The report looks at the stigma around SUD and mental illness along three dimensions: public stigma (society’s negative beliefs), self-stigma (negative beliefs individuals hold about themselves), and structural stigma (systemic discrimination in rules and policies).

While previous stigma research has mainly focused on mental health, the authors note that SUD is typically more stigmatized than mental illness, partly because substance use is seen as more controllable. Experiments framing SUD as uncontrollable do reduce stigma but risk portraying substance dependence as insurmountable.

Variability in stigma exists among different substance dependencies; for instance, individuals abusing illegal drugs like heroin are perceived as more dangerous than those abusing alcohol or prescription opioids.

Stigma’s Impact on Seeking Treatment

Public stigma, along with structural and self-stigma, discourages individuals with SUD from seeking and persisting with treatment, according to research findings.

While some studies suggest strategies like education can help counter inaccurate beliefs, progress has been limited. This fact highlights the need for researchers to investigate more robust methods for reducing stigma, including emphasizing individual recovery and addressing structural treatment barriers like inadequate insurance coverage and limited access to evidence-based interventions.

Toward a Stigma-Free Future: Insights and Suggestions

In a commentary accompanying the report, APS James McKeen Cattell Fellow Stephen P. Hinshaw from the University of California, Berkeley and University of California, San Francisco, suggests successful treatments could be the “ultimate game-changer” in reducing stigma. Another commentary by APS Fellow Kenneth J. Sher from the University of Missouri, renowned for his work on alcohol use disorder, calls for a more nuanced view of SUD stigma, cautioning against nonspecific terms like SUD and advocating for research on the effects of relabeling.

Aware Recovery Care: Combatting Stigma Through Unique Care

At Aware Recovery Care, we understand the harm stigmas can cause and have worked hard to develop a model of care that addresses that harm. Many of the wonderful people that make up our care teams have lived experience with addiction. They understand because they have been through it. And they will help someone you love get through it as well.

If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction to opioids, other drugs, or alcohol and need help in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Ohio, Kentucky, or Indiana, the recovery teams at Aware Recovery Care are here to help. And we come to you, regardless of where you live. Our unique in-home treatment model of care gives clients a significantly better chance of recovery than traditional inpatient rehab care. Please get in touch with one of our Recovery Specialists to learn more.