According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word stigma is defined as “a mark of shame or discredit.” Stigma has been prevalent in human culture since the establishment of society, with common use traceable back to Ancient Greece, where a stigma was a mark or brand often used on slaves or other individuals to deem them as inferior or morally corrupt to all others.
A social stigma is the disapproval of or discrimination of someone based on perceivable social characteristics, most often dealing with culture, gender, race, and health (illness and disease), according to Erving Goffman, one of the most influential sociologists of the twentieth century.
Stigmas have long been a tool for marginalizing those who embody or portray characteristics deemed unsavory by society. Today, stigma has evolved to indicate “the invisible mark made by negative social perceptions, a mark that can hurt just as much as a physical brand,” according to the Association for Psychological Science.
While race has often been stigmatized, so too have personal struggles with addiction and mental health issues despite decades of anti-stigma campaigns. The symptoms and negative consequences of alcohol and other drug addictions can cause embarrassment and shame amongst those affected and perpetuates the harmful societal perceptions of addiction – exacerbating the difficulties those with addiction and mental health issues already experience.
Most dangerously, the stigma surrounding mental health and addiction often discourages those affected from seeking help, due to the shame they feel in admitting that they have such problems. In fact, only one in ten Americans with a substance use disorder receives proper care for addiction. Given the magnitude of the opioid and addiction crisis gripping our nation, this means a staggering number of people are not receiving the treatment they need, presumably to avoid the negative consequences.
According to the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, “drug and alcohol addiction is too often seen as a moral issue or a criminal matter rather than a health problem,” with many public policies in place that discriminate against individuals with addiction or mental health issues, such as housing policies, mandatory disclosures on job applications. This marginalization is so powerful that it often deters individuals from taking the necessary steps to stay alive.
While debunking these stigmata is key to tackling the addiction crisis in the U.S., unraveling a deep social construct takes more time than those suffering from addiction and mental health may have in their lifetimes. Encouraging measures have, however, been taken to support the de-stigmatization of opioid addiction. For example, during Mental Health Awareness Month (May), Facebook joined forces with the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and the Center on Addiction to launch a campaign called “Stop Opioid Silence (SOS),” created to remind those struggling and their loved ones that they are not alone.
It is paramount that addiction treatment specialists continue to highlight that addiction is a chronic disease that can be successfully managed and to make treatment as accessible as possible. For those suffering from addiction and mental health disorders, it is important to find a treatment center that offers programs for co-occurring disorders.
By opening a dialogue around addiction and mental health, society can help to “normalize” the subjects, or at the least, eliminate some of the effects the stigmata carry and, in time, will hopefully encourage those who have yet to seek treatment get the help they need.