The Power of Social Stigma on Addicts

People are stigmatized when others view them in a generally negative light because of narrowly perceived characteristics or attributes. Another term, “negative stereotyping,” refers to the same phenomenon.

Many individuals effected by drug or alcohol addiction experience significant stigma.

In a 2014 Journal of Substance Use study, a team of British researchers examined why this cycle starts – and its similarities with prejudice shown towards people with mental illnesses.

Understanding Social Stigma

Social stigma is a common function of culture and society. Typically, it arises when a dominant social group perceives the members of a less powerful group as a collective “other” instead of as equals or potentially valuable contributors to the culture or society as a whole. In its most overt form, stigma can manifest as outright discrimination that clearly limits the stigmatized person’s ability to do such critically important things as find employment or gain access to needed services. However, stigma can also manifest in much more subtle ways, including avoidance of the “other” in social situations.

Unfortunately, stigmatized people can start to internalize the viewpoints of people who see them in a seriously negative light. This means that, ultimately, a stigmatizing attitude can come from within as well as from others. A person who stigmatizes him- or herself can seriously harm his or her ability to make effective social contributions. As a rule, levels of stigma fall when people emphasize common social or personal attributes rather than social or personal divergences.

Stigma and Reduced Access

Along with people affected by schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses, people affected by substance addiction form one of the most frequently stigmatized population groups in American society (as well as in other societies throughout the world). As is true in other marginalized groups, the stigma associated with addiction can have extremely serious real-world ramifications. For example, fear of being seen as an “addict” can stop a person with diagnosable substance problems from attempting to gain access to appropriate treatment.

In turn, a person stigmatized by others as an “addict” can experience a tangible decline in his or her access to essential things such as basic medical care, medical care in emergency situations, employment suitable for his or her skill set, safe housing opportunities and equal treatment from police or other elements of the criminal justice system.

Stigma and Heroin Addiction

In the study published in the Journal of Substance Use, researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School, the National Health Service and two other British institutions used a short questionnaire to explore the reasons members of the general public commonly stigmatize people affected by heroin addiction, as well as people affected by schizophrenia and depression.

This questionnaire proposed five potential reasons for the stigmatization of these conditions, then asked respondents to describe the importance they placed on each of these explanations.

The listed reasons for stigmatizing heroin addicts with mental illness were:

  • fear of somehow contracting the condition in question
  • belief that affected people are “to blame” for their condition
  • belief that affected people have low moral character
  • belief that the condition in question may not be treatable
  • belief that affected people pose an active danger to society

A total of 150 people received the questionnaire; each one of these individuals demographically represented key aspects of the larger society.

One hundred six of the 150 targeted recipients filled out the researchers’ questionnaire. After reviewing the replies, the researchers concluded that belief in the active danger posed by affected individuals is the main factor accounting for the stigma toward people with heroin addiction, as well toward people with schizophrenia or depression. The least relevant concern is apparently the relative treatability of heroin addiction, depression and schizophrenia. The three other factors under consideration are seemingly far less important than a fear of the potential for danger, but still substantially more important than the perceived treatability of these conditions.

The Importance of Reducing Stigma

Based on their findings, the study’s authors believe that public health efforts to counteract the perceived dangerousness of heroin addiction, depression and schizophrenia will likely provide the greatest benefit in easing the social stigma placed on these conditions. Conversely, efforts that stress issues of treatability will likely provide the smallest benefit.

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