Understanding and eliminating stigma

We know that stigmatizing people who live with substance use disorder creates barriers to recovery. We know that it has a degrading and shaming impact not only people who are in active addiction, but upon their loved ones as well. What we seem to be missing is the connection as to why we are inclined to cast judgment in the first place.

Fact: We live in a culture that not only condones but further, expects that adults engage in regular drug use.

Did the above sentence make you uncomfortable? Well, alcohol and caffeine are not only socially sanctioned drugs, but they’re also things one might feel pressured to explain abstinence from. I’m routinely asked why I don’t drink.

Now, we can safely say that plenty of other addictive and mood-altering substances are socially acceptable, just not quite to the degree that caffeine and alcohol are. Marijuana and many addictive psychotropics are socially sanctioned: (Klonopin, Xanax, Valium, Adderall, Ritalin, Vyvanse and plenty of others).

So, what we have is a society that has an overall expectation of drug use being salient and even relatively acceptable with a corresponding expectation that one should not become chemically dependent or addicted.

Nothing about that is rational or realistic.

We’re largely a culture of people who want to use substances while also believing that they’ll never become a problem for us.

That’s the function of stigma – to separate ourselves from the people we fear becoming. Those who bare the burden of our judgment are the poor, the sick, the oppressed and downtrodden.

Stigma is like racism and prejudice – often subtle and rarely overt. The latest example I’ve seen is recent BDN article by Judy Harrison. The author describes an arrest for domestic violence terrorizing by a 40-year-old man with a lengthy criminal history. The article goes on to note that this man is the son of a retired local police chief.

Why is that relevant? Well, we are a society that judges by status, not only of the individual but by extension, his/her family members. In effect, the story becomes more interesting (scandalous) by noting that the man who perpetrated a crime is the son of a retired chief of police.

We’re a society that loves to see folks fall from grace. Just as this man’s family is dragged through the mud by virtue of their adult son’s behavior, so to, the families of those in active addiction experience public judgment every time their loved one’s choices are treated as a reflection of their family.

This has to change.

What kind of person has a child who succumbs to addiction? All types. People from every walk of life. Every social status, every faith, every economic class. All of us.

Stigma distances us and reduces our collective sense of community. This is all that’s required for the perpetuation of social problems. In short, if we’re gonna get better, we gotta come together.

If you’re doing so well in life and find you have time on your hands to cast judgments, I have two suggestions for you:

  • God is better at it than you are
  • Share your good fortune and be like me and mine: The only time we look down on others is to help lift them up.
Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim is the cofounder of Sobernow.com an online addiction recovery program that is affordable and provides complete anonymity