Stigma is defined as “a mark of disgrace or infamy.” The stigma of addiction stems from behavioral symptoms and aspects of substance use disorder. Examples include impaired judgment or erratic behavior that result in negative consequences, including legal, occupational and relationship problems.
Understandably, these kinds of consequences cause embarrassment and shame among those afflicted and affected. They also create stigmatized attitudes and perceptions about addiction among the wider public, a response that leads to the private shame associated with drug addiction.
For generations, this combination of personal shame and public stigma has produced tremendous obstacles to addressing the problem of alcoholism and other drug addiction in America. Today, the stigma of addiction is seen as a primary barrier to effective prevention, treatment and recovery efforts at the individual, family, community and societal levels. Addiction stigma prevents too many people from getting the help they need.
How do we change the stigma of addiction? The first step is to understand that addiction is a disease. Like diabetes, cancer and heart disease, addiction is caused by a combination of behavioral, environmental and biological factors. Genetic risks factors account for about half of the likelihood that an individual will develop addiction. Addiction involves changes in the way the brain and body function. These changes may be brought on by risk-taking behaviors or the fact that genetic susceptibility may pre-exist.
Some people think addiction cannot be a disease because it is caused by the individual’s choice to use drugs or alcohol. While the first use (or early stage use) may be by choice, once the brain has been changed by addiction, most experts believe that the person loses control of their behavior.
People feel pleasure when basic needs such as hunger, thirst and sex are satisfied. In most cases, these feelings are caused by the release of certain chemicals in the brain. Most addictive substances cause the brain to release high levels of these same chemicals that are associated with pleasure or reward. Over time, continued release of these chemicals causes changes in the brain systems involved in reward, motivation and memory. When these changes occur, a person may need the substance to feel normal.
The individual may also experience intense desires or cravings for the addictive substance and will continue to use it despite the harmful or dangerous consequences. The person will also prefer the drug to other healthy pleasures and may lose interest in normal life activities. In the most chronic form of the disease, addiction can cause a person to stop caring about their own or other’s well-being or survival.
Many people do not understand that addiction can start with something as simple as a cup of coffee or cigarette. Once the pre-wired brain is triggered by a chemical it finds favorable, it is difficult for the brain to break away from the idea that it can function without that chemical or substance. How many of us feel lethargic if we don’t have that afternoon cup of coffee?
Once we are educated about addiction, the next step is to help those suffering find the help and resources they need. If there are any families in the Southington community looking for support when dealing with a loved one with an addiction, Southington Youth Services offers a Hope & Support group to provide a safe and confidential space for parents, guardians and others who are concerned about a loved one’s substance use or addition.
All families are welcomed and encouraged to utilize these services at no cost. The group meets twice a month at the Southington Community YMCA. For more information, please visit Southington.org and click on the Youth Services Department.
Megan Albanese is the Southington STEPS Coalition outreach coordinator. She can be reached at (860) 276-6281 or email@example.com.