Science has proven that substance use disorder is a chronic brain disease that can be managed with medical treatment. It is NOT a moral failing or a character flaw.
But still, only 1 in 10 Americans with a substance use disorder receive treatment.1 Addiction is highly stigmatized, and that stigma is fueling an American public health crisis.
Many other diseases have been harmfully burdened by stigma at some point.2 Cancer and HIV are two notable examples.
Years ago, people used to whisper about "The Big C" in hushed voices. Cancer was taboo, and people who developed the disease were often isolated.3 But as people with cancer began talking openly, sharing their personal stories and uniting their communities, the stigma began to subside. Today, cancer awareness events, fundraisers, and organizations are so commonplace, people might be surprised to learn that the disease was ever considered a shameful secret. And all that awareness has led to funding for important research that is saving lives today.
HIV awareness and treatment followed a similar path. In the 1980s, when little was known about how HIV is spread, the public developed irrational fears and prejudices about individuals living with the virus. And according to the World Health Organization, this stigma was the #1 reason people were reluctant or afraid to get tested for HIV, to disclose their HIV positive status, or to get treatment for their illness.
But as scientific developments illuminated the realities of HIV, the stigma began to shrink, and care improved.5 By taking steps like including HIV testing in routine doctor visits, the stigma and fear began to subside. And with that, prevention efforts became more effective. People were able to receive treatment earlier, increasing their chances of survival.
With both cancer and HIV: when stigma was reduced, lives were saved. And the same can be true of addiction.
Substance use disorders are associated with discrimination and social disapproval—more so than any other medical condition.6 People with substance use disorders are so often isolated, outcast, and even imprisoned. This can prevent them from getting access to the evidence-based care that they really need. The stigma of addiction takes hundreds of lives, every day.
So when we talk about the harmful effects of stigma, and stigmatizing language, it's not about being sensitive, or politically correct. It's about treatment, care, and saving lives.
Learn about the harmful impact stigma has on addiction treatment and recovery, and check out our glossary of stigma-reducing language.
“Stigma isolates people, discourages people from coming forward for treatment, and leads some clinicians, knowingly or unknowingly, to resist delivering evidence-based treatment services.”
Director White House Office of National Drug Control Policy