Teens who struggle with drugs or alcohol face face countless forms of addiction stigma every day, often causing them to feel at odds with themselves and the world around them. Additionally, the threat of societal judgment prevents many parents from getting their teens help they need to recover.

What is Addiction Stigma?

Societal stigmas are ingrained in our minds from the time we are born, which makes them particularly tough to negate. Stigmatization occurs when entire groups of people are subject to broad, negative opinions about who they are. If overweight people are viewed as lazy, or homeless people are seen as thieves, or elderly people are considered unintelligent, then they are being impacted by stigma.

A similar stigma looms over parents who have a child struggling with a substance use disorder or a co-occurring disorder. Insensitive and dehumanizing words like “crackhead,” “dope fiend” or “psycho” can and do sting. Far too often, society has a knee-jerk reaction to those struggling with these disorders, opting to assign correlations to deep-seated moral failings — the kid has poor morals or the family hasn’t instilled proper values.

What must be understood is that a drug or alcohol addiction is not a moral failing. It’s a disease that requires professional treatment.

Stigma and Drug Rehab

If discussing addiction or drug rehab options has proven difficult with either your primary care provider or within your family, it’s understandable, considering just how much stigma factors into the planning or justifying of getting some form of professional help. But the key is to remember that addiction is a disease, the treatment and maintenance of which is wholly out of your hands — no matter how concerned a family member or caregiver you are. If your child needs help, find a way to get them help.

Every day, on average, 100 people die from drug overdoses. Another 12 young people under age 21 die every day from alcohol-related causes. That’s 100 too many. That’s 12 too many. Despite the stigmas, the hard truth is that teen drug abuse and alcoholism don’t get cured on their own; only treatment can get a young person on the road to sobriety.

Studies have shown that effective treatment planning hinges on one major factor: demonstrating the need for treatment. When a teen or loved one acknowledges that rehab is worth a shot — that they need treatment — there is a greater likelihood that the child adheres to the treatment program. But the research also shows that this occurs despite the patient expecting to be stigmatized. In other words, it’s understood that guilt and shame regarding addiction treatment may be loud — the importance of drug treatment must be louder.

Effects of Addiction Stigma

Americans’ opinions about teens with addiction tend to be informed strongly by the negative reputations associated with it. Thus, parents whose children are resorting to drug use in high school or middle school are often hesitant to seek professional help. They worry what their friends, coworkers, extended family and even doctors will think of them. The end result is that teen addiction often remains unaddressed, and it inevitably worsens without treatment.

Addiction stigmatization is dangerous for many reasons, including:

  • It may not allow people to admit to themselves that they need help because they feel they are morally fine
  • It creates guilt and shame that prevents teens — and families — from seeking professional help
  • It can affect how friends and social circles perceive and accept the person — especially when mentioning a stint at rehab
  • It may lead to the teen receiving substandard medical care
  • It can impact professional opportunities

What Contributes to Addiction Stigma?

Coping with drug addiction is already a battle, but shame and guilt regarding treatment makes recovery even more difficult. Many factors have contributed to the stigmatization of drug abuse and addiction in the U.S. Here are a few of them:

  • Insurance Coverage – Insurers are more reluctant to offer insurance for rehab than treatment for another disease, such as diabetes. Although the two diseases have vastly different causes, both are medical conditions that require professional medical attention.
  • Legal Issues – Usually when police officers discover that someone with an addiction is abusing illicit substances, that person is prosecuted and/or sent to prison rather than given rehabilitation. Unlike a disease such as Alzheimer’s, the disease of addiction is often criminalized.
  • Medical Treatment – Even great doctors are not always well-versed in addiction disease or its treatment. Some insist that their patients become drug-free before they will provide further medical attention, sentencing those patients to an untreated vicious cycle of disease.
  • Lack of Knowledge – As a society, there is a lack of education regarding addiction as a disease, so most people simply don’t know how recovery works. Too often, it is assumed that people in recovery are always on the brink of relapse, a false conception that prods anxieties to the surface and stifles self-belief.

How to Reduce Stigma of Addiction

. The Affordable Care Act has shed light on addiction as a disease in recent years, making addiction treatment coverable through insurance. But the public conversation hasn’t necessarily been as quick to accept addiction and mental health disorders like other serious diseases are accepted. Conversations regarding brain injuries, heart ailments and terminal illnesses carry a gravitas that isn’t afforded to addictions. But addiction is a disease, and the dangers of addiction must be communicated as such.

As stigmas about addiction and rehab are reduced, people suffering from the disease will be more confident to step forward and receive help. Addiction shame can only be changed through action — your action.

“Stigma is most likely to diminish as a result of public education and broader acceptance of addiction as a treatable disease.”

Institute of Medicine

There are a few ways that you can contribute to the destigmatization of addiction.

Change the Conversation

Addiction is a chronic brain disease, and must be discussed as such. It is not a choice, and it cannot be controlled by sheer willpower. People who suffer from this disease live, work and raise families in your neighborhood. You can help by acknowledging that addiction is a brain disease that — just like every other disease — requires medical treatment.

Change Our Tone

When you talk about someone who has a medical condition, it is important to use “person-first” language. That is, refer to them first as a person, after which you can reference their medical condition. For example, if a child was born with Down syndrome, you would not refer to them as “a Down syndrome child,” but rather, “a child with Down syndrome.”

Person-first language should be employed when speaking about people with all medical conditions, including addiction. If your teenager struggles with an addiction, do not refer to them as an addict, but rather, a teen who suffers from addiction. This practice is helpful because it reminds us that everyone — regardless of their medical condition — is first and foremost a human being, just like ourselves. You can help by using person-first language to help reframe the perspectives of those around you.

Speak Out

In 1978, former First Lady Betty Ford opened up to the public about her addiction to alcohol and prescription painkillers. This worked wonders for the stigma of alcoholism and of drug addiction — everyday people realized, If the First Lady of the United States of America struggles with addiction, then perhaps people who are addicted are just normal folks who happen to have a disease and need medical attention instead of judgment.

In recent years, many White House officials have spoken out more regarding America’s opioid addiction dilemma. In early 2016, President Obama acknowledged that addiction is a disease and that drug use isn’t necessarily always sinister at the start.

“Addiction doesn’t always start in some dark alley — it often starts in a medicine cabinet.”

President Barack Obama

The more that people come forward and talk frankly about their experiences with addiction, the more the disease is normalized. If you or someone close to you has encountered addiction and you feel ready to share your experience with others, you can help by sharing it privately with just one person or even with a group.

Encourage Rehabilitation over Incarceration

Because the legal consequences of drug use often lead to incarceration, people who suffer from addiction do not have the chance to heal from the disease. Prisons are rife with drugs and alcohol, making them a terrible and tempting place for people with addiction.

On the other hand, rehabilitation has a much higher recovery success rate than incarceration. Additionally, providing treatment is often much less expensive to the taxpayer than imprisoning someone. These facts haven’t been lost on the White House, the President recently saying:

“We’re working with law enforcement to help people get into treatment instead of jail.”

President Barack Obama

You can help by contacting your local and national lawmakers and urging them to promote addiction rehabilitation over incarceration.

Does Your Child Need Rehab?

If you see any signs of substance abuse in your teen, now is the time to reach out to a professional. Don’t blame yourself or your child for addictive behavior. Finding the right drug rehab program may help save their lives.

If you do not know where to begin, you can call us 24/7 at our drug helpline. We’re always available to offer free, confidential, professional guidance to parents like you who are concerned for their child’s medical well-being. We can help you determine whether your teen is suffering from addiction, answer rehab questions or determine your child’s insurance eligibility for treatment. No matter what you need during this time, we are here for you.

Stigmatization may be strong, but your love for your child is stronger. The hardest step is often the first one: seeking help. Don’t wait to take action — your child’s life could depend on it.


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http://www.justicepolicy.org/uploads/jus[…]arceration_ac-dp.pdfMcVay, Doug, Vincent Schiraldi, and Jason Ziedenberg. “Treatment or Incarceration?” Justice Policy Institute — Home. Justice Policy Institute, Jan. 2004. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

http://ps.psychiatryonline.org/doi/pdf/10.1176/appi.ps.52.12.1615Sirey, Jo Anne, et al. “Perceived Stigma and Patient-Rated Severity of Illness as Predictors of Antidepressant Drug Adherence.” Psychiatric Services. Psychiatric Services, Dec. 2001. Web. 19 Aug. 2016.

http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/susa[…]on-any-other-diseaseJones, Susan. “WH Sends Message, ‘Addiction Is Like Any Other Disease’.” CNS News. CNS News, 16 May 2016. Web. 19 Aug. 2016.


Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.