Discriminating against victims of substance abuse is more than just adding insult to injury. It encourages a further downward spiral into destructive lifestyles. While there is ample reason to view such behaviours in a negative light, stigmatisation can significantly discourage people from seeking out treatment.
In 2014, the Journal of Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research found that when experiencing discrimination and societal rejection, people suffering from substance abuse became even more depressed and anxious. This worsened state encouraged them to fall deeper into their respective addictions.
The UK Drug Policy Commission distinguishes the difference between stigmatisation and disapproval. Whereas the latter is more directly concerned with a particular bad behaviour, the former focuses on the general assumptions and perceptions about the character of a person. It also goes beyond stereotyping. The former takes a stereotypical perception and proclaims it the most defining and disgraceful feature of a person.
Why Stigmatisation Persists
Stigmatising against substance abuse is counter-productive, but why does it continue? There are several ways to go about answering that question.
For one, anti-drug laws and policies have always been geared towards punitive action. Until recently, society has always viewed such acts as morally wrong. Little by little, more politicians and other key decision-makers are starting to see substance abuse as a health issue rather than a criminal matter.
Many people also incorrectly simplify it as an issue of will and determination. While there are users who can abandon a substance relatively quickly, it’s unrealistic to expect the same capability across the board. More often than not, some people continue to resort to substance abuse due to environmental or developmental factors. Some grow up in a highly dysfunctional family, or others have a history of violence and trauma. Substances like drugs are seen as a way of coping and escaping harsh realities.
Leaving the Stigma Behind
Any effort towards alcohol and drug detoxification must go hand-in-hand with reducing stigma and misconception. Some ideas to help make this possible include:
- Increasing awareness and understanding among the public – People, in general, must understand the reasons that substance abuse takes hold of people’s lives. A strong information campaign should be developed and aimed at reversing decades of misconception around the issue.
- Abandoning punitive policies that enforce the stigma – Public and private agencies must ensure that stigmatisation isn’t formalised through laws and policies. For instance, drug treatment services shouldn’t demand arbitrary time limits for abstinence as a prerequisite for employment.
- Correctly training medical professionals and other workers who help prevent substance abuse – Sitgmatising attitudes may persist even among staff from the NHS or specific charities for several reasons. Such professionals need to have the appropriate skills and tools to work with substance-dependent persons. Refresher training and workshops are potential options to explore to accomplish this.
Battling stigma against substance abuse is equally important as fighting the addiction itself. With a better understanding and appreciation of the different factors involved, communities and society in general can help pave the way for the right treatment and a full recovery.