Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is something that millions in the United States struggle to manage on a daily basis. Despite this, only a small percentage of individuals actually seek out treatment for AUD1. And from my perspective as a recovery coach, one of the main reasons for this is the stigma around alcohol addiction.
Stigma means being viewed in a negative light due to a characteristic or trait that is thought to be a disadvantage. I often notice a palpable fear of being judged by others among those seeking treatment in the community. In this post, I’d like to discuss the primary reasons for the stigma around AUD from a coaching perspective, and how we can reduce and overcome it.
Addiction Is Not a Moral Failing
One main reason for the stigma around “alcoholism” is that many people simply do not understand what AUD is. Alcohol dependence is often seen as “being weak,” or “bad behavior,” or a “moral failing,” when in reality AUD is a chronic, relapsing disease of the brain2. Alcohol short-circuits a person’s pleasure and reward circuits, and recovery takes as much time and effort as any other long-term illness.
It’s especially important for loved ones to understand this as their family member or friend is struggling with this disorder. It’s not possible for an individual with AUD to simply “stop,” or turn their addiction off like a light switch. While it can be easy to lose one’s patience during the recovery process, being hard on someone with an addiction often compounds shame, reinforces stigma, and makes change more difficult.
One of our recent posts outlines how to communicate with compassion. Ria Health also offers a guidebook for friends and family of people in our online recovery program to help them support their loved ones.
Changing Our Perspective on Alcohol Use Disorder
In my view, one of the main ways we can reduce the stigma attached to AUD is simply education on top of more education. If people viewed addiction the same way as other treatable health conditions, such as diabetes or hypertension, the stigma would be greatly reduced. Generally, people are not ashamed to admit they have diabetes, but many times they suffer in silence with AUD, out of shame and fear of being judged.
Sadly, many times the stigma is perpetuated by healthcare professionals as well. Many doctors are unaware of effective treatment options for AUD, or are underprepared to advise their patients on how to deal with the issue. Addiction is still often seen as outside the range of ordinary health problems.
Fortunately, there are effective ways to treat alcohol use disorder, medically. Approaches like medication-assisted treatment get strong results for many people. This is not simply “substituting one substance for another”—most medications for alcoholism are non-addictive, and help people to reset their brain chemistry around alcohol. Through education and the reduction of stigma, many people may be able to get treatment that really works.
As a recovery coach, one of my main responsibilities is to educate Ria members on daily gratitude, and having a “glass half full” approach to recovery at all times. This attitude can help replace negative thinking patterns related to stigma, and help establish thinking patterns and habits that are healthier. Helping people with AUD to believe that recovery is possible goes a long way.
Rethinking How We Talk About Addiction
Reducing stigma also involves eliminating negative labels associated with alcohol use disorder. Words such as ”alcoholic,” “drunk,” etc., tend to also cause and increase shame around having AUD. It’s important for people with addictions to understand that they are valuable individuals, and not just their diagnosis.
Language that acknowledges addiction as a health condition, such as “alcohol use disorder,” can make a difference. Person-first language is also helpful: “person with AUD,” or “my (family member) who is in recovery,” may be longer phrases, but they acknowledge the complexity of the person, and can reduce stigma.
Making It Easier for People to Get Help
My hope is that the stigma around alcohol use disorder will wane as people become more educated about this condition. One reason I like working at Ria Health is that the program helps individuals have a healthier relationship with alcohol, without having to feel guilty when they have one drink. Not only do we offer moderation as an option, we also focus on helping members get back on track if they make a mistake, without shaming language.
I look forward to the day when stigma is reduced to the point where people are not fearful of seeking treatment for AUD—including medication-assisted treatment. Education and the elimination of negative labels may be a good start.
Learn more about online recovery coaching with Ria Health.