As children or teenagers, most of us would have encountered examples of addiction and mental illness. At such an early age, it’s unlikely that we had the life experience or knowledge to view these afflictions in an empathetic light. That homeless person talking to themselves on the street was “crazy.” The severely depressed friend? “Lazy.” And forget about that uncle with a gambling addiction; he was “irresponsible” and “selfish.” This is stigma in action. At that age, we were but conduits for social conditioning. However, without the requisite education, dialogue, and awareness, this can persist well into adulthood.
Considering it’s constantly reinforced by society, dispelling these ingrained misconceptions can prove difficult. However, to ensure better treatment for those who suffer, we must change the common perceptions of addiction and mental health.
The term “stigma” refers to a mark of disgrace or infamy, along with the perception that something isn’t ‘right’ or ‘normal’. In the context of mental health and addiction, it usually manifests as prejudice, discrimination, or misinformation. This insidious set of beliefs can breed across all environments—from homes and workplaces to broader cultural landscapes.
Historically, addiction and mental health have long been misunderstood. Despite leaps forward in attitudes, addiction is still widely seen as a moral failing or lack of willpower. In reality, research shows it is most often the result of trauma, along with genetic and environmental factors beyond the sufferer’s control.
The persistent misconception has been exacerbated by many of the world’s nation’s harsh policies. America’s “War on Drugs” is a fitting example—the demonization and criminalization of sufferers perpetuate misconceptions among the populace.
The general perception of mental health is no better. For most of history, such issues were frequently perceived as signs of weakness or something to be hidden or ashamed of. As recently as the 19th century, women with a broad variety of mental health issues were diagnosed with the blanket term “hysteria”—more a means of patriarchal control than effective treatment. What’s more, the medieval-like lobotomies (famously depicted in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) only fell out of favor in the 1950s and 60s.
These prejudices don’t exist in a vacuum. They have real, tangible effects on those living with addiction and mental health issues. Stigma can lead to feelings of shame, isolation, and despair, often preventing people from seeking help out of fear of judgment or discrimination. Furthermore, there are systemic ramifications, leading to inequities in healthcare access, employment, housing, and legal systems.
The Reality of Addiction and Mental Health
To truly confront this stigma, we must first understand these issues in their scientifically-backed context. As we’ve mentioned, addiction is not simply a matter of willpower or morality. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines it as:
“… a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences.”
While in agreement with the thrust of this definition, renowned addiction expert Gabor Maté doesn’t believe the word ‘disease’ is accurate. In his book, The Myth of Normal, he describes addiction in a more strength-based way, as:
“… a complex psychological, emotional, physiological, neurobiological, social, and spiritual process.”
Ultimately, both definitions are a far cry from stigma-informed attitudes. The crux of them is that many of the contributing factors—trauma, genetics, social environment—are beyond a person’s control. When treating those with addiction and mental health disorders, shouldn’t the first port of call be empathy and compassion, rather than criticism or ostracism?
To put it very simply, substances like drugs or alcohol, or behaviors like gambling, create a pleasurable ‘high’ that a person can become drawn to. This ‘high’ usually serves as a means to get relief from physical or psychological pain. The pursuit of this escape can override a person’s self-control and ability to resist intense urges, and, the more they use over time, the less relief they gain. To make things worse, the increasingly negative effects of the addiction can exacerbate the pain they originally wanted to escape from.
Similarly, mental health disorders aren’t signs of weakness or personality flaws. They are real, complex illnesses that can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, social status, or ethnicity. Much like addiction, conditions like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder stem from a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. They are not something a person can simply ‘snap out’ of.
The impact of these conditions is widespread. According to the World Health Organization, 5% of the global population suffers from depression. They also report that an estimated 35 million people are affected by a drug use disorder. When you factor in the prevalence of comorbidity (the co-existence of a mental illness and substance use disorder) it’s clear that many attitudes are out of sync with the reality of this epidemic.
Stigma and Shame
Stigma and shame are intertwined, with the former often potentiating the latter. Essentially, the misconceptions surrounding addiction and mental health can foster an environment of shame, perpetuating a harmful cycle that can exacerbate both conditions.
Living with addiction and/or mental health issues may lead you to internalize societal stigma, leading to feelings of shame and worthlessness. You might falsely believe you’re weak, flawed, or morally deficient, significantly impacting your self-esteem and mental health.
Isolation and Concealment
Due to fear of judgment or discrimination, you might choose to hide your struggles. This concealment can result in self-imposed isolation, preventing you from seeking support from friends, family, or professionals. In turn, isolation can worsen mental health symptoms and increase the risk of substance misuse.
Barrier to Treatment
Stigma and shame may cause you to delay or avoid seeking help due to fear of being labeled or stigmatized. You may also have concerns about confidentiality, particularly in small communities or workplaces. This avoidance can prevent early intervention and make recovery more challenging.
Relapse and Recovery
Quitting and withdrawing from drugs, alcohol, or behavior addictions is only the first step of recovery. Even when you’re ostensibly ‘free and clear’, societal stigma can still be difficult to shake. Despite being sober, the persistent feeling of shame can contribute to stress and anxiety, potentially triggering a relapse. This is why it’s essential to get help for any underlying issues that could derail your commitment to recovery.
The Power of Perception
Our perceptions greatly influence our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Many of our worldviews are formed subconsciously—whether via media, subliminal conditioning, or an overbearing parent. This is why we must constantly interrogate our preconceptions to dismantle stigma.
There are many cases of Hollywood movies glamorizing or misrepresenting addiction and mental illness. For example, Split turned Dissociative identity disorder (DID) into a scary, violent condition (far from reality), as did Hitchcock’s Psycho. Furthermore, while it’s an acclaimed film, The Wolf of Wall Street portrayed excessive drug use in a funny, light-hearted manner, without addressing any of the consequences of addiction.
The British tabloids, in their merciless pursuit of a big scoop, are notorious for vilifying celebrities’ drug and alcohol use. Never do they exercise empathy or attempt to address the underlying causes of these addictions—Amy Winehouse being a particularly tragic example.
These are just a glimpse into the media’s role in perpetuating stigma, which is why we must remain vigilant, and educate ourselves (and others) toward more accurate perceptions.
On the flip side, huge steps have been made in recent years to raise awareness about the nuances of these afflictions. Many notable figures have been more candid about their mental health and addiction struggles. These include Stormzy, Steve-O, John Mulaney, and Ruby Wax, to name a few. This is encouraging and representative of a shift in attitudes towards a more compassionate and supportive stance.
The internet has also played a huge part in allowing people to communicate and share their experiences. Ultimately, the more we keep raising awareness, the more it will be reflected in policies, education, and general attitudes.
Reframing the Perception
Now that we’ve delved into the power of perception and seen the impact of stigma, the question remains: how can we reframe our perceptions of addiction and mental health?
Knowledge is one of the most potent tools for combating stigma. By educating ourselves and others about the realities of addiction and mental health, we can replace misconceptions with facts. This education can take many forms, from school curriculums and workplace seminars to public health campaigns and media pieces.
Empathy allows us to understand and share the feelings of others. By fostering empathy, we can cultivate a society that supports and understands those struggling with addiction and mental health issues. Remember, empathy is not some mystical power, but a learned skill that can be developed over time. For those who are unafflicted, truly understanding addiction and mental health makes the practice of empathy essential.
Advocacy plays a crucial role in stigma reduction. This might involve advocating for policy changes that promote the rights and wellbeing of individuals with addiction and mental health issues or advocating for the accurate portrayal of these issues in the media.
They often don’t seem like much, but words are powerful. By continuing to use terms loaded with negative connotations, we unknowingly propagate stigma. The power of language has been widely acknowledged in the study of addiction treatment. By consciously using ‘strength-based’ language—saying “a person with a substance use disorder” instead of “an addict,” or a recovery center instead of “rehab”—we can help change the narrative.
It can be difficult to bear your soul, especially if it’s painful or traumatic, and you’re not under any obligation to do so. However, if or when you’re ready, sharing your personal story with others can be a powerful tool for changing perceptions. By providing platforms for people to share their experiences with addiction and mental health, we can help to humanize these issues and dispel stereotypes.
In our commitment to this paradigm shift, we will all encounter issues or make mistakes—try to forgive those who lack the tools to understand your struggle, and also have compassion for yourself if you get frustrated with them. Remember, reframing the perception of addiction and mental health isn’t a quick fix, but a collective effort that requires time, patience, and resolve.
How Maui Recovery Can Help
At the core of Maui Recovery is a commitment to dismantling the stigma surrounding addiction and mental health. By providing a supportive, understanding environment for recovery, and emphasizing empowerment and self-discovery, we help our residents break free from negative conditioning.
Our holistic, empathetic approach addresses not just the symptoms, but also the underlying emotional and psychological factors. Ultimately, we don’t just treat the addiction; we treat you, the human being.
We offer individualized treatment plans, experiential therapy, group sessions, and a range of therapeutic activities, all within a nurturing, stigma-free community.
Let us help you break the chains of the past and create the life you truly deserve.
If you’d like to talk to us about shame, stigma, or our approach to addiction treatment, please don’t hesitate to contact us.