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The Negative Impact and Consequences of Addiction Stigma on the Families and Friends of Addicts.

It is critically important that the family understand that addiction is a grave and chronic brain disease. This is a proven medical fact. So why is there a stigma attached to addiction? Why do family members often feel ashamed and embarrassed by their suffering loved one? Does the same stigma apply to those with diabetes, cancer or a multitude of other diseases? Would the family feel any shame if their loved one was suffering from any of these conditions?

By Shayne Sundholm, Clean Recover Centers


Addiction is possibly one of the most devastating diseases on the planet. When a loved one in the family is stricken with terminal cancer, the family and everyone else impacted feels very sad and helpless. They all feel very sorry for that family member. The person eventually dies and all close to him or her mourn their death. At some point, life goes on, and family, friends and associates move on with hopefully pleasant memories of the person who has passed. This is typically not the case with the suffering addict, and that is shameful in my opinion.

Currently, your loved one suffering from addiction is largely ridiculed by society and often by their own family. Their behavior is looked upon with embarrassment and shame, often by the family perhaps most of all. If your loved family member truly has a disease, why is this the case? If he or she is afflicted with a disease that they have little or no control over when active in addiction, why is there this stigma and why is there this feeling that this family member “should” have control over what he or she does?

The truth is that in the depths of addiction, your loved one has about as much control over his or her disease as a family member with terminal cancer if they are untreated. The family and society at large may say that this is nonsense. Of course, your loved one has control over what he or she does! This is simply 100 percent not true of the suffering addict who is not receiving effective treatment. Someone once described to me that the intensity of the compulsion to use in active addiction is like “trying not to scratch an itchy mosquito bite.” Now multiply that compulsion to scratch by 1,000, and you get a very apt description of the intensity of the compulsion. In fact, it is even worse than that if you can imagine.

It is very important for the family to realize that the societal stigma associated with addiction has, in fact, made it worse, and I would hope your family would not want to add to it. Your suffering family member believes what they hear and wonder why they can’t control their behavior. According to society, and often family members directly, they “should” be able to control themselves – but they cannot. Your loved one then feels worse and uses more and more often. Even worse behavior usually ensues, and he or she feels even more guilt and shame, which increases their use even further. The simple fact is that until your loved one is treated effectively, this terrible cycle will continue, most often ending up in an ever-growing number of hospitalizations, incarcerations and death.

What has been the result of this stigma and the ignorance surrounding addiction? Drug overdoses have gone off the chart and are now one of the leading causes of death in the country. And there is no end in sight. Over 60,000 people will die this year from opioid overdoses alone. If your family has been afflicted with addiction in some way, shape or form, I ask, “Do you or your family want to contribute even more to this devastating stigma?”

If we are to tackle the current opioid and overall drug and alcohol epidemic, this stigma will need to change dramatically. Typically, the family and society at large do not understand that addiction is more than a physical disease. And it is certainly more than just a matter of your loved one “stopping.” There is a psychological component to this disease that is blocking your suffering loved one from abstaining until he or she can develop a completely different manner of thinking and living. Addiction is often described as a three-fold disease – physical, mental, and spiritual. Without effective help in addressing these three components, the chances are your loved one will not be able to stop.

How can families help change this stigma? There are a great many things that can help, education being one of them. You can help educate your friends, colleagues and associates. Most of them will know someone who is suffering from addiction, and you may be able to help them! And they, in turn, can learn to help other people. At our treatment center, we educate not only your suffering loved one but all of those impacted by their disease – family members, spouses and friends. The loved one receiving care must approve who we speak to and share information. We find that when we explain addiction in all its facets to these family members and friends, they become much more open to the fact that addiction is a disease. They often feel a sense of comfort and ease knowing that the their loved one is not a bad person, he or she is simply suffering from a chronic and often fatal illness that if not treated will likely result in death. Family and friends are also encouraged by the fact that their loved one can come back and live a life beyond their wildest imagination.

Being in recovery ourselves, we know how it feels to suffer and recover from this disease. Only an addict knows what it is truly like to have this affliction. We describe how we suffered, what happened and what life is like now.

On a broader scale, we plan to initiate educational initiatives online and develop partnerships with key third parties, both profit and non-profit, to further educate society at large. We are encouraging family members to join groups that specialize in increasing addiction awareness and education. We will also be examining opportunities at the local, state and federal levels to get this information out to a broader audience. If there are similar opportunities for families to get involved, we strongly encourage that as well.

Almost every family knows of someone who is suffering from addiction. Most currently have little if any understanding of what addiction is and how they can help the addict. Many families have very definitive views on addiction, including that it is a moral issue and the result of character flaws. This ignorance is literally killing people every day. Addiction is no more a moral issue or character flaw than cancer. Addiction is a deadly disease that can be effectively treated.

The fact that some treatment centers engaged in questionable activities in areas such as marketing has not helped change addiction stigma. This would be akin to a doctor watering down chemotherapy medicines to improve his or her profit margin. Laws are now being enforced, written or re-written curtailing this activity, and we welcome that. The impact has been sudden. Those questionable activities have ceased for the most part. Unfortunately, questionable activity that had been occurring in the addiction treatment space has received more press nationally than the addiction epidemic itself.

We have an addiction epidemic, and the national media runs stories that scare families and their loved ones away from treatment. Would it be too much to ask for them to run a solution- based story regarding addiction given that over 150 people are dying each day from opioid addiction alone? Or that there is now data that even more people than that are dying from alcoholism and associated diseases? How about a story pointing out the many treatment centers doing very good work and the fact that if everyone who needed treatment received it, there would be only a fraction of the bed capacity needed currently? Or that some certain insurance policies have upwards of $40K to $50K deductibles and out of pocket expenses making any sort of treatment for those with such policies virtually impossible?

Indeed, we encourage families to get involved and stay involved in efforts to change addiction stigma. It is going to take a tremendous effort, not unlike the effort that was put behind changing the AIDS stigma. Today, very few people die of AIDS. If we can be half as successful with addiction, we will save millions of lives.