Managing the Addiction Stigma

Dr. Robin Barnett

Though more conversation is turning toward recognizing and trying to combat stigma around drug and alcohol addiction, these attitudes still persist. One definition of stigma is this:

“[It] is a mark of disgrace that sets a person apart from others. When a person is labelled by their illness, they are no longer seen as an individual, but as a part of a stereotyped group. Negative attitudes and beliefs toward this group create prejudice, which leads to negative actions and discrimination.”

Some feelings and experiences that result from being stigmatized are shame, hopelessness, loneliness, social exclusion, and discrimination in some settings. This is particularly harmful for those with a substance use disorder since it can affect their willingness to get treatment and their ability to find adequate support—and potentially push them farther into their addictive behaviors.

But there are ways to manage the stigma addiction receives, both as someone with an addiction and as someone who knows or loves one. First, share the facts about substance abuse, including the fact that millions of people suffer from some form of drug or alcohol addiction in this country, which means it’s likely someone they care about struggles with it.

It is also helpful to let people know that addiction is a result of many factors, including genetic predisposition, environmental issues, and social challenges. Also, many people do not know that getting clean is not a matter of willpower, but a result of commitment to treatment in some form that often lasts years.

Also, if you hear someone using derogatory language toward someone with a drug or alcohol addiction, you can respectfully ask them not to speak that way and share that someone you love has one and that they are a wonderful person with a serious disease. Particularly with the rise of the opioid epidemic, it’s very likely that almost everyone knows someone who is suffering—likely in silence. Bringing the issue to a personal level can help change someone’s perspective in a meaningful way.

Making a concerted effort not to inadvertently contribute to stigma is important too. Even laughing at jokes that belittle someone with an addiction add to the problem rather than help it. And if you meet someone with an addiction, treat them with the same dignity and respect you’d give anyone else.

If you are someone who has struggled with drug or alcohol addiction, talking about your experience with the disease and about how you got clean can make a big impact on someone who never considered the personal reality of a substance use disorder.

Many small actions like these can add up and help push back against addictions stigma and create a more open environment for compassion to grow.


Dr. Robin Barnett, EdD, LCSW, LCADC, CCS, CSAT is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Licensed Clinical Alcohol and Drug Counselor, Certified Clinical Supervisor, and Certified Sex Addiction Therapist. She is involved in the fabric of several TV shows, and has appeared on FOX, MTV, CNN, CBS, and NBC. She is currently seen on the Steve Wilkos Show as an Addictions Expert. Her book, “Addict in The House: A No Nonsense Family Guide Through Addiction and Recovery” is the “Go-to” book for thousands of families trapped in this dangerous dysfunction.  Following a successful private practice, Dr. Robin co-founded a highly respected Addictions Treatment Center. She now brings her years of experience and education to the world through her various tv appearances, public speaking, educational and e-therapy services.