Addicted: Society’s Stigma Surrounding Addiction

Over 21 million Americans suffered from a substance use disorder in 2014a number that is greater than the entire population of New York State.  As the United States faces what has been deemed a drug epidemic, with the increased use of heroin and opioids, prevention agencies struggle to find a way to effectively reach the general public, while treatment for those already addicted is scarce (“Substance Abuse,” 2016).

America’s issue with substance abuse is nothing new.  A brief skim through the history of the 20th century shows the changes in policies and social ideas regarding addictive substances in the U.S. For example, Prohibition, the prohibiting of producing, selling, and consuming alcohol, took place from 1920 to 1933.  The 1960’s were notorious for increased drug use as drugs became symbols of rebellion against older generations.  This was then followed by President Nixon’s war on drugs in the 70’s and a push for drug reform through various programs for the following two decades (“A Brief History,” 2016).  While the United States has a long timeline of trying to control substance abuse, one thing that hasn’t changed is the stigma surrounding those who are addicted.

While the DSM-5 does acknowledge substance-related and addictive disorders, much of the general public fails to see addiction as a disorder. Rather, it is viewed as a moral weakness. Like many mental illnesses, people falsely view the person suffering as the embodiment of their illness. Rather than seeing someone as a good father or a successful musician, the shadow of addiction tends to overpower the rest of a person’s accomplishments.  For those who have never personally experienced addiction or seen someone suffer first-hand, the assumption tends to be that the person is weak-willed and their addiction is a matter of choice.  The average person doesn’t see the internal struggle behind addiction, nor the chemical complexity that occurs at a biological level.

While the ideas surrounding addiction are slowly shifting towards a more accepting mindset, the longstanding shame associated with the issue hinders those seeking help. The negative connotations can prevent people from seeking treatment by reducing their willingness to attend therapy session or reach out to resources.  Instead, the stigma may cause those suffering to try to hide their substance abuse problem and prolong treatment.  The stigma may also impact a person’s support system because of the incorrect idea that addiction is strictly a matter of choice.

However, if steps are taken to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, including opening up communication about how complex substance dependence can be, the greater the chance is that people would receive and utilize proper treatment.


A brief history of the drug war. (2016). Retrieved September 11, 2016, from

Substance abuse and mental health services administration. (2016, March 8). Retrieved September 11, 2016, from


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