Last Updated on January 14, 2022
People who struggle with alcohol use disorder deserve compassion, understanding, and most importantly, access to treatment. But the public’s view of alcohol addiction, unfortunately, isn’t always so supportive. There remains much stigma and misunderstanding around alcohol dependence, and this comes with harsh consequences.
According to a 2010 study, people with alcohol use disorders who perceive stigma in their community are less likely to receive treatment1. In essence, the way we perceive and speak about addiction can cause people to avoid getting the help they need.
Below, we’ll discuss why stigma can be such a significant barrier to treatment, and what you can do to help break the cycle.
Alcoholism Is a Medical Condition, Not a Personal Failure
According to research from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, people are more likely to form negative opinions about those struggling with addiction than they are towards those with other mental illnesses2.
In particular, many people assume that those with addictions are somehow irresponsible or flawed. The complex environmental, biological, and psychological factors involved are often discounted or overlooked.
Many factors can play a role in the development alcohol use problems, including3:
- Genetics and family history
- Mental health conditions
- Past trauma or abuse
- Social and cultural factors5
The effects of alcohol on brain chemistry can reinforce the problem, making it very difficult to “just stop.” Many individuals with established AUD face strong cravings, severe physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms, and changes in the prefrontal cortex that reduce impulse control.
In other words, alcohol use disorder is a medical condition—not a moral failure. Recognizing this is an important step towards easing the problems around stigma and addiction, and opening doors for those who need support most.
What Does the Stigma Attached To Alcoholism Look Like?
For people with alcohol use disorder, stigma can seem ubiquitous in our culture—in media, in the workplace, among family and friends, and even within the medical industry.
In television and movies, characters with addictions are often portrayed as villains. Worst-case scenarios, such as losing employment and becoming homeless because of addiction, are often portrayed as the norm—feuling stereotypes, increasing shame, and lending invisibility to the number of “high functioning” people struggling with substances.
Meanwhile, in daily life we often hear people with AUD referred to as “drunks,” “addicts,” or other stigmatizing terms. Socially, we hear stories and anecdotes that belittle those who struggle with alcohol, while, paradoxically, one can draw unwanted attention for turning down a drink. It seems being in recovery and declining alcohol carries a double-dose of stigma.
There is even some stigma within the medical profession. A person with a condition related to alcohol use disorder might still be seen in a more negative light than a person with a condition related to diabetes, for example. And, within treatment, a person may even face stigma for choosing a non-12 step recovery plan—including moderation or medication-assisted treatment stigma6.
How Stigma Prevents People From Getting Help
The end result of all this is that people struggling with alcohol may feel scared or ashamed to discuss the problem. For some, this means it’s harder to seek help and find support. For others, this may fuel denial—if they are still able to go to work and live their lives, they might want to do anything but identify as an “alcoholic.”
In general, stigma pushes people to keep the problem under wraps, wait until hitting “rock bottom” to get help, and ignore warning signs they may be drinking too much. It also makes it harder for people to educate themselves about addiction as a disease, making it all the more confusing if they are ready to make a change.
On top of the social stigma, there’s also an economic issue. Consider that many employers might still fire someone for having a substance use disorder, or refuse to hire them in the first place. A person may be stuck between a rock and a hard place—unable to take time off to deal with the issue, while worrying it will affect their performance.
In summary, the stigma around addiction can make an already difficult situation even harder to navigate. When a person believes others will shun them for their drinking habits, they may decide it’s best to hide their consumption rather than seek help.
Stigma Reduction Strategies: What You Can Do
So, how can you help people reduce the stigma around alcohol use disorder, and make it easier for people to access help?
Stigma reduction strategies include:
- Showing kindness and empathy toward those dealing with addiction.
- Avoiding stigmatizing language around substance use. Be mindful of using terms like “addict” or “drunk.” This language can be dehumanizing and cause people to feel more stigmatized. Instead, use language such as, “person with an alcohol use disorder.”
- Having honest conversations with others when you notice them perpetuating stigma attached to alcoholism or other addictions.
- Using a human-first approach when talking with or about anyone with a substance use disorder. After all, addiction doesn’t define who they are.
- Focusing on being positive and supportive. There are countless people who have recovered from alcohol use disorder and gone on to live fulfilling, accomplished lives. Recovery happens all the time, and if a person is working on overcoming addiction, they deserve encouragement and admiration.
Online Treatment Can Help
One way of dealing with the stigma of addiction is to make it easier for people to access help without having to pause their lives. If a person can conduct treatment from home, on their own schedule, they have more choices about who they tell about their addiction. They can work through the stigma at a pace that is manageable for them.
Ria Health is one program that gives people access to support, 100 percent online. Members get custom treatment plans, weekly coaching meetings, and digital progress-tracking tools, all from their smartphone. Care is tailored to the individual’s schedule and goals. They don’t even need to identify as an alcoholic to join.
Programs like Ria are working to normalize alcohol treatment and make it similar to other forms of medical care. Because that’s what alcohol misuse is—a medical issue. Anyone struggling with their drinking deserves access to the help they need, without worrying about the stigma.