Erasing the Stigma of Drug Addiction

PR Newswire PR Newswire • October 23, 2019

Despite the fact that opioid abuse often arises from legitimate medical treatment, people fighting opioid addiction often have to deal with the powerful social stigma associated with drug abuse. Over 11 million people misused prescription opioids in 2016, and this number continues to grow. What can we do as a society to eradicate this stigma?

The Persistent Stigma of Opioid Addiction

Opioid use disorder (OUD) can create deep shame, and it’s not uncommon for patients to feel unloved and think they’ve failed their family and friends.

Women, who are proven to be more susceptible to OUD, can experience intense feelings of guilt. Even new mothers who aren’t aware of the risks of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome may innately feel guilty about taking opioid medications during pregnancy. In addition, some moms may hesitate to seek help for OUD because they believe the stigma of being addicted to drugs makes them a poor mother. They also may be afraid of what their family or friends will think or say.

In some cases, family members can inadvertently contribute to this stigma. Loved ones may think that making the person feel guilty is a good way to motivate them to change; however, it usually has the opposite effect. The stigma of drug abuse can cause patients to shy away from treatment and hide their addiction.

Why Patients and Family Members Often Feel Shame

It’s important to understand that the stigma of opioid addiction is based on misconceptions. Beating the stigma first means chopping away at these underlying falsehoods that support it:

1. The Patient Is Responsible for the Addiction

The truth is that opioid addiction is a medical disease, just like diabetes or cancer. Families don’t make diabetics feel guilty because their body doesn’t produce enough insulin, so why does society blame OUD patients if their brain becomes addicted to a prescription medication? Doctors are aware that opioid painkillers such as oxycodone are highly addictive; this addiction can happen to anyone, including new mothers, who may receive oxycodone after delivering a baby via Cesarean.

2. Opioid Dependence Is the Same as Opioid Addiction

Some patients may feel ashamed if they have withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking pain medication. However, withdrawal symptoms are common when people take opioids for an extended period of time. The brain adapts to dopamine produced by these drugs, and it starts to rely on the medication to function normally. Withdrawal can cause irritability, cravings, depression and other symptoms.

There’s a big difference between physical dependence and drug addiction. Addiction occurs when the person is unable to stop taking the medicine, even when he or she wants to. Taking prescribed painkillers after surgery is not the same as addiction; neither is having cravings during withdrawal.

3. Patients Just Need More Willpower To Beat OUD

Opioid addiction happens because of physical changes in the brain, not because of moral weakness. OUD can affect people of any personality type and age. To beat substance misuse, patients need medical treatment.

Important Ways To Overcome the OUD Stigma

If we’re going to beat the OUD stigma together, we need to make some important changes as a society. These changes have to take place both on a personal level and at the governmental level:

  • Recognize OUD as a medical illness: All of us need to understand that OUD is a disease, not a moral failing. Similar to depression, arthritis or diabetes, OUD has real, physical causes. Opioid addiction doesn’t make people weak or immoral. It just means they need help.
  • Increase OUD awareness: Getting prompt treatment for opioid dependence and withdrawal can prevent addiction. Treating addiction to oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl and codeine can keep patients from turning to heroin. Finding information about OUD should be easy for everyone, from pregnant moms to cancer patients.
  • Protect innocent moms and children: Doctors and drug companies have often contributed to the opioid epidemic by overprescribing without informing patients of the risks. Government agencies and state authorities should step in with legislation to hold these companies accountable.
  • Make OUD treatment more accessible: Some OUD patients don’t get treatment because they can’t afford it. In other cases, making an appointment takes too long. Public and private agencies need to work together to fund OUD treatments for all.
  • Treat OUD patients with respect: Doctors need to foster openness and trust by using appropriate language around people suffering from opioid addiction. People who have OUD deserve the same respect as someone recovering from surgery or any other medical ailment.

How Friends and Family Members Can Help With OUD

If a loved one is fighting an opioid addiction, your help can be a turning point. Eliminating the fear, shame and guilt associated with OUD is a powerful step in motivating patients to continue or seek treatment.

First, do your best to increase the self-esteem of OUD patients. They need to know that you see them as valuable, loved and important. Next, urge them to seek medical attention. Medications such as methadone and naltrexone can have a positive effect on recovery, and treatment centers can help with the side effects of withdrawal. Above all, it’s critical to not let patients lose hope. If a relapse happens, don’t focus on the fall; focus on the positive progress of the patient.

A key part of conquering OUD is beating the stigma associated with drug addiction. Society and government need to do their part by funding alternate pain treatments, providing opioid abuse assistance and portraying people with OUD as brave, not weak or immoral. In the meantime, friends and family members can have a huge impact by giving those with OUD unfailing support.


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