The Crippling Stigma of Drug Addiction

By Soul Sanctuary Staff – November 2018

We all frequently hear about the surge in suicide and overdose deaths due to drug and alcohol addiction. The Centers for Disease Control estimates there were more than 72,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017, a record. However, no one tracks the number of premature deaths in addicts due to neglect and mistreatment of collateral issues such as infections, diabetes or hepatitis, hypertension, and many other treatable, but life-threatening conditions. Why is this a problem? Many addicts avoid going to hospitals or seeing doctors because they feel they will be treated differently than “normies” and made to feel second class, and that their treatment will be worse, and they will suffer. They are right.  According to a recent opinion piece by Dr. Jessica Greg of the Oregon Health and Science University: “Addiction is profoundly stigmatized throughout the U.S. health care system.” 

Many doctors decline to treat drug addicts, especially for surgery or other risky procedures, because the addiction makes treatment more complicated. Drug addicts rarely make it high on lists of transplant candidates. Emergency rooms often make known drug users wait longer to be seen. There are even legal statutes in some states that deny medications to cure hepatitis C if the person is also a drug user. It’s true that many drug users abuse emergency rooms by coming to them complaining of pain in order to get opioids. But other addicts also have diseases or conditions that cause acute pain yet receive poor treatment because of the stigma that brands them.

stigma of drug addiction Drug users are often accused of “doing this to themselves.” This sentiment is not usually verbalized but obvious in the rolling of eyes when the addict complains about pain, fear, or anxiety. No one starts their lives saying they want to be an addict. Addiction is a disease, and in our society, it’s a disease that is easy to catch.

According to Dr. Gregg: “Drug addiction doesn’t mean that a drug user is uninterested in health, or life. It means that the drug user is addicted to drugs. It means his brain changed, he has lost control, and use has become compulsive. It means that even when she wants to stop, she can’t.”

Addiction needs to be treated like any other medical condition. Isolating, shaming, or otherwise punishing someone addicted to drugs is not going to cause them to stop using.

Psychology Behind the Stigma of Drug Addiction

Erving Goffman was one of the most influential sociologists of the twentieth century. He described stigma as a phenomenon whereby an individual with an attribute that is deeply discredited by his/her society is rejected as a result of the attribute. Goffman saw stigma as a process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity. He explained that the stigmatized are considered “in the extreme, quite thoroughly bad, or dangerous, or weak.”

Addicts are considered all of those things. Goffman further says stigma thrives or dies, in the ways people treat one another. This means stigma can be killed if we choose to.

Dr. Gregg concludes her piece by saying:

“The stigma around addiction will die if we acknowledge the friends, neighbors, and family members who struggle with this condition. If we acknowledge our own secrets and our own struggles. If we ask drug users about their lives and hopes and hobbies. If we know about their addiction and love them (and we do already love so many of them) anyway.

That is when discrimination ends, and healing begins.”

If someone you know is struggling with alcohol or drugs, visit or call 800-772-1097 to learn more about our treatment programs.