A major challenge for those who have an addiction to drugs or alcohol is facing and overcoming stigma. Stigmas are imposed by society, communities, friends and family members and can cause major discrimination and hurt. Addiction is a disease that can be treated with appropriate medical intervention. Treatments include medication, behavioral therapy, fitness regimens, vitamin treatment or skill development. However, many people believe that addiction is a character flaw or a weakness in a person. They may believe that the alcoholic simply can’t hold their booze. Perhaps they think that the marijuana smoker just needs to stop. And they are likely to believe the person struggling with methamphetamine abuse should just smash their pipe and get over it. Unfortunately, it is not so easy to overcome addiction. There are many factors as to why a person continues to use a drug despite the negative consequences.
There are many different stereotypes that are brought to mind when thinking about people who are dependent on drugs or alcohol. The majority of these stereotypes make negative assumptions about lifestyles that include drugs and alcohol. People who abuse substances are typically deviants and don’t engage in society like the rest of the population. They embody different values to mainstream society: skirting the edges, unemployed, victims of bad upbringings, high school drop outs and prostitutes. They take drugs in dark, dirty alleyways or squats, rob innocent people, go on binges and engage in high risk behaviors.
The reality of substance abusers is that the majority are just like everyone else. They are parents, children, friends, workmates, sisters and brothers. They hold down jobs, have friends, go to social functions and enjoy their weekends. Some fail to manage their addiction and do become entrenched in a lifestyle that the stereotypes embody, but many do not. An addiction does not discriminate between rich and poor, young or old.
Medical workers, law enforcement, insurance companies and employers may tap into their own stereotypes if they are faced with an addict. An employer may believe that a person suffering from alcoholism is untrustworthy and fire them from their role. A police officer may think that because someone is a heroin addict that they will be involved in a theft. Most people who have a substance abuse problem are able to exist in society without causing problems for others. Substance abusers will deny their problem and hide it from others for fear of being discriminated. They will feel the shame associated with a stereotype and be weakened by the constant negative connotations of addiction. They may also struggle with their problem for too long without getting help until the consequences are too severe.
Discrimination restricts a person’s access to necessary health care, employment, benefits and can discourage them from seeking help. Many people who have an addiction face chronic discrimination. Some employers believe that they have the right to fire an employee if they have a drinking or drug problem. Social services may cut a person off welfare payments if they find out about a substance abuse issue. Mothers and fathers are declared unfit parents because they struggle with addiction. Doctors refuse to offer treatment to someone who has a drug addiction. If this same kind of discrimination occurred for any other group of people, there would be serious repercussions.
Language plays an important role in addiction as the words we chose discriminate or help those who suffer from the disease of substance abuse. Drugs are often demonized and the people who use them are weak, selfish and destructive. Terms such as habit, junkie, wine-o, meth head and stoner all have negative connotations and infer that substance abuse is a lifestyle choice. People who are trying to fight their illness need as much support and care as possible in order to give them strength to recover. As with other terminal diseases like cancer, support is essential in treatment.
The key to reducing discrimination and removing stigmas associated with substance abuse is education and awareness for addicts and society. With tolerance and understanding, a person suffering from this disease can get the help they need in the most effective way. They will not be scared to ask for help or fear discrimination.
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Drug or alcohol rehabilitation works at DARA by taking you away from your daily triggers and stresses that lead to your drug or alcohol use in the first place.
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DARA can use a model to help conceptualize the process of recognizing there is a drinking or drug problem and taking action to do something about it.