The recovery industry is teeming with labels and stigmas. How many slang terms for “drug addict” can you think of? Webster’s defines stigma as “a mark of shame or discredit.” Modern culture uses labels to denote devalued categories of people. Labels are founded in fear and, unfortunately, they influence public perception. They often rob people from the dignity they might otherwise receive. Stigmas are a barrier to addiction treatment due to the shame around having a substance use disorder. Most of us are generally unaware that our own biases perpetuate the labels we place on others. For example, the labels given to a person with substance use disorder are debasing and demoralizing – despite the overwhelming evidence showing that substance use disorder is, in fact, a disease.
Reducing another human being to merely a product of their shortcomings is not only unfair, it is dehumanizing – it’s as if to say they possess no other qualities other than their diagnosis. Yet, we do it all the time.
It is well studied that words in our culture are extremely powerful. According to William White, language can:
Empower or dis-empower
Humanize or objectify
Engender compassion or fear and hatred
Motivate or deflate
Comfort or wound
Unite or create enmity
As it relates to the health care industry, many who require treatment for substance use disorder as well as mental health issues are deterred from seeking services because of the stigma surrounding these groups. Despite their often intense and extreme suffering, those with substance use disorder would rather forego treatment than deal with the shame and embarrassment caused by other people’s judgment. This fact alone speaks volumes about how painful it must be.
Perhaps, it has something to do with our upbringing – still of the era that encourages us to hide our weaknesses and never risk being vulnerable. When, in fact, the opposite is true. In reality, it takes vulnerability to be courageous. (Just ask Brene Brown!)
We have a choice. We can choose in the moment whether to stigmatize another human being – pass judgment based on appearance, make presumptions, or hold someone to some ridiculous unspoken (societal) standard, or whether we practice kindness, reminding ourselves that we have not, in fact, walked a mile in that person’s shoes. Let’s all challenge ourselves to be more compassionate, sympathetic, and most of all, humane toward one another. Take a breath before deciding to label another person and be conscientious about the language used when describing others. Little by little we can start to bring about some positive change and help remove some of the barriers to treatment caused by stigmas.