Looking to celebrity culture illustrates the impact of stigma on treatment seeking for substance abuse. Celebrities pay a premium to sneak away to secluded treatment facilities in order to avoid their fans from finding out about their struggle with addiction. Or, if rumors about their struggles persist, they may release a brief public statement asking for privacy. Among non-celebrities, this culture of secrecy and shame is just as powerful. Sadly, our culture views addiction as a failure of the individual that results in a lifelong battle, rather than a treatable disease.
Common Stereotypes about People Struggling with Drug Addiction
The secrecy and shame surrounding substance abuse treatment makes many people view those struggling with drug dependence very negatively. For example, in national surveys of American adults, many people report that they would not want someone dealing with substance dependence as a neighbor or coworker. Additionally, nearly half of respondents believe that people struggling with drug or alcohol addiction are more dangerous toward others. Understanding addiction and not pre-judging the abuser by creating stereotypes can be a positive way to decrease secrecy and improve willingness for affected individuals to seek treatment.
Scientific Evidence about Stigma and Opiate Treatment Seeking
In a 2015 study, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health investigated the role of how we as a society talk about stigma on willingness to seek treatment. The scientists were inspired by research from the HIV/AIDS community that showed that portraying HIV/AIDS as a treatable condition (rather than a death sentence) significantly improved public attitudes toward people struggling with the disease.
To examine the effects of stigma, researchers created a series of short vignettes that described the personal lives of various fictional people. In one set of vignettes, individuals were portrayed as having untreated prescription pain medication addiction or heroin dependence. The other set of vignettes was identical in every detail, except that the stories portrayed individuals who were successfully treated. After reading a randomly assigned vignette, study participants answered a series of questions testing their beliefs and attitudes about opiate addiction.
The researchers found that respondents exposed to the untreated heroin addiction story were less willing to want a person with drug addiction marry into their family or work closely with them. In contrast, those who read the vignette about treated substance abuse felt more positive about the treatability of opiate dependence and were less accepting of discrimination against people who had struggled with drug abuse.
How This Affects Willingness to Seek Opiate Treatment
Public perception of a problem strongly impacts a person’s choices. For many people struggling with opiate dependency, thinking about the possible reactions of friends, coworkers, or family members keeps them from seeking help. In many cases, hiding the problem or avoiding treatment can make the effects of substance abuse even worse.
However, this recent scientific evidence suggests that simple steps can modify public perceptions of people struggling with drug dependence. For example, public service campaigns to discuss substance abuse treatment options and to counter the idea that drug users are dangerous can reduce stigma. Additionally, the personal narratives of people who have experienced substance abuse, sought treatment, and come out on the other side can be very powerful. Countering these negative stereotypes is an important step in decreasing stigma.