Overcoming Reluctance to Seek Help: Addressing the Stigma Surrounding Addiction

Stereotypes and myths are culprits when it comes to stigmatizing addiction. So many common misconceptions swirl around, and then are caught, magnified, and declared “true.”

Sad woman, therapist and care for understanding in support for addiction

Statistics on those who don’t seek help for addiction are essential for understanding the extent of the issue. However, accurate statistics are hard to come by because of an overall underreporting of addiction.

Here’s what we have to work with, but this number is much larger:

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that among people ages 12 or older in 2021, 61.2 million people (nearly 22% of the population) used illicit drugs.

43 million people ages 12 (16.5% of the population) met the applicable DSM-5 criteria for having a substance abuse disorder. However, 94% of these people did not receive any treatment.

That was not a typo. Ninety-four percent of 16.5% of the population with a substance abuse disorder did NOT receive treatment.

We have got to understand why people who need help for addiction are not receiving the help they need.

Let’s unpack the stigma of addiction.

The addiction stigma

Stigma is a powerful force that attaches shame and disapproval to certain conditions or behaviors. The official dictionary defines stigma as “a set of negative and unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something.” (emphasis mine).

Addiction, whether it’s related to drugs, alcohol, or other substances or behaviors, carries a significant stigma. People with addiction issues are often labeled as:

  • Morally weak
  • Undisciplined
  • Dangerous
  • Unpredictable

This addiction stigma? It comes from a lack of understanding about the complexities of addiction. What is dangerous is this: the stigma affects not only the general perception of addiction but also how individuals with addiction perceive themselves.

The stereotypes and myths

Stereotypes and myths are culprits when it comes to stigmatizing addiction. So many common misconceptions swirl around, and then are caught, magnified, and declared “true.” For example, some common misconceptions about addiction include:

  • Addiction is a moral failing.
  • People with addiction are weak-willed.
  • People with addiction can quit anytime if they want to.
  • Those with successful careers can’t be addicted.

Such beliefs lead to a blame-oriented perspective, naturally making it difficult for those with addiction to admit they need help without fear of judgment.

The media’s role in perpetuating stigma

Woman supporting alcohol addiction husband with wine bottle on kitchen

The media doesn’t help the stigma because it perpetuates stereotypes and misconceptions over and over again.

Think about how movies, television shows, and news articles portray the characters who are struggling with addiction. Most of the time the worst parts blare off the screen. Then, the storyline neglects to include the whole story—all the complexities of addiction.

This reinforcement of stigmatizing narratives further isolates those in need and hinders their willingness to seek help.

Statistics on stigma and reluctance to seek help

As mentioned before, statistics on stigma and why people don’t seek help for addiction are skewed because it’s simply underreported. Some research is out there, though. Check out these statistics:

A survey done by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) found that only 10% of those with a substance abuse disorder sought treatment in the past year.

A study published in the book Ending Discrimination Against People with Mental and Substance Abuse Disorders: The Evidence for Stigma Change cited that individuals facing substance abuse disorders who experience higher levels of stigma are less likely to access treatment and support.

This case study shows that the stigma related to medication treatment can be a substantial barrier for young adult patients seeking help for substance abuse disorder.

This research study reports that stigma and discrimination surrounding opioid addiction often result in delayed or avoided treatment, contributing to the global burden of disease.

The impact of stigma on reluctance to seek help

The stigma surrounding addiction has far-reaching consequences, making them less likely to seek help when they need it the most. Here are some ways that stigma negatively affects people with addiction:

Fear of rejection

caucasian woman at home sad on the floor with a glass of wine - concept of addiction, loneliness, sadness -

Many people with addiction issues fear rejection if they disclose their struggles. They worry about being shunned by friends, family, or colleagues, which can further isolate them and hinder their recovery.


Internalized stigma or self-stigmatization is so damaging. When people with addiction believe the negative stereotypes about themselves, they may feel shame and low-self-worth.

Reduced access to treatment

Stigma can create financial or practical barriers to accessing treatment. Insurance companies may provide limited coverage for addiction treatment. The cost of rehab or therapy can be prohibitive for many.

Legal consequences

In some cases, addiction can lead to legal issues, and some may avoid seeking help due to the fear of criminal repercussions.

Addressing Stigma by Understanding the Science

To successfully tackle the stigma, a deeper understanding of addiction as a medical condition is necessary. The scientific community has made significant strides in unraveling the complex nature of addiction.

Check out these findings:

Brain changes

Research has shown that addiction is associated with changes in the brain’s reward and control systems. These changes make it nearly impossible for individuals to control their substance use without professional help. The biological underpinnings of addiction must be understood.

Genetic factors

Studies have identified specific genetic factors that can increase someone’s susceptibility to addiction. Understanding the genetic component can help reduce the misconception that addiction is a matter of personal choice.

Environmental factors

Research also shows that various environmental factors, such as childhood trauma and socioeconomic conditions, affect addiction. These results emphasize that addiction can affect anyone.

Chronic nature

Addiction is increasingly recognized as a chronic disease, similar to diabetes or hypertension. This understanding shifts from blame and shame to support and evidence-based treatment.

How to Be A Part of the Solution

Two young female friends hugging in city

The solution is to smash the stigma of addiction and encourage people who need help to seek it. What does this look like, though?

Here are some ways to be a part of the solution:

Education and awareness

Raising awareness and educating yourself and others about addiction as a medical disease is a critical Step One. This includes dispelling myths and misconceptions and giving accurate information about the biological and psychological underpinnings of addiction.

Empathy and compassion

Being empathetic and compassionate and encouraging others to do the same can reduce the stigma associated with addiction. By emphasizing that addiction can happen to anyone—it is no “respecter of persons,” and also that recovery is possible, society can become more understanding and supportive.

Media representation

As we mentioned previously, the media plays a significant role in shaping public perception. Encourage media outlets to portray addiction and recovery stories with both sensitivity and accuracy. This shift can help change the narrative surrounding addiction.

Support groups

Support groups and peer counseling programs can provide a safe and non-judgmental space for those with addiction to share their experiences and seek help. These groups can be instrumental in reducing self-stigma and encouraging recovery.

Policy changes

Advocating for changes in policies and laws that discriminate against individuals with addiction is a crucial step. This includes criminal justice reform to prioritize treatment over incarceration and to ensure that individuals receive equitable access to treatment.

Workplace support

Employers can play a significant role in reducing stigma. You can encourage workplaces to create policies and environments that support employees in their sobriety. Employers can provide access to Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs).

Mental health and addiction services

Incorporating mental health and addiction services can help reduce stigma. When addiction treatment is seen as a part of a broader spectrum of mental health care, it can be destigmatized.

Celebrating recovery stories

Sharing success stories of those who have overcome addiction can be powerful. Recovery stories can inspire others and challenge negative stereotypes. These stories can be shared through various media channels like social media.  

Case Studies: Successful Initiatives

Happy group of trendy young people laughing sitting in city street. Millennial diverse student friends having fun together outdoor

Raising awareness and educating others about how the addiction stigma keeps people from seeking help has been successful in some places. Several initiatives have addressed this issue:

Portugal’s Decriminalization Policy

Portugal’s Decriminalization Policy began in 2000 when the country decriminalized drug use and focused on treatment rather than punishment. This policy has reduced addiction-related stigma and significantly improved access to care.

Recovery High Schools

Recovery high schools are designed for students who are in recovery from addiction. These schools reduce the stigma while creating a community of support for students who need it.

The Voices Project

The Voices Project is a recovery advocacy organization that is “changing the way America thinks about recovery, one voice at a time.”  This initiative encourages individuals to share their stories and advocate for change.

The Bottom Line

Overcoming the reluctance to seek help for addiction is the first step in addressing the global substance abuse crisis. The stigma surrounding addiction is significant and prevents those who need treatment to consider it. Increasing both knowledge of addiction and empathy towards those struggling is key.

Addiction should be marked by hope, not shame, and by support, not judgment.

How can Maui Recovery Help?

Maui Recovery holds years in experience of not only breaking the addiction stigma but also helping people walk out of addiction and into recovery. With a holistic combination of traditional models and experiential therapy, our creative approach to treatment has resulted in hundreds of successful patient testimonies.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, we are here to help. Contact us today to talk to one of our professionals and see how we can help.

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If you’re struggling with an addiction, or know a friend or family member who is, reach out to one of our experts today. We’re here for you.

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