Addiction Seen as Moral Failing, Study Finds

Substance abuse is a choice—that’s what most people believe when they think about addicts—so why don’t they just stop using? Stigma is a huge problem because it prevents people from getting the help they need. To avoid the shame and embarrassment of having an addiction, many people who need treatment will never seek it.

Although research over the last couple of decades has begun to tear away at these myths about addiction, attitudes have been slow to shift. We may know that addiction is a real disease of the brain, but a recent study points out that the stigma is still there. In fact, the stigma attached to addiction is even greater than that of mental illness.

A Study on Stigma

A recent study published in Psychiatric Services and conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health demonstrates that the general attitude toward addiction is worse than mental illnesses.

“While drug addiction and mental illness are both chronic, treatable health conditions, the American public is more likely to think of addiction as a moral failing than a medical condition,” lead study leader Colleen L. Barry, an associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the School of Public Health, said in a statement about the research.

The study included a survey of more than 700 people who were asked how they felt about mental illness and addiction, specifically about drugs. Participants answered questions related to discrimination, treatment, public policy and stigma. The results overwhelmingly demonstrated that people have a much more negative view of addiction than mental illness.

About 62 percent of the survey respondents said they would be willing to work on a job with someone with a mental illness, while only 22 percent said the same about a drug addict. Responses were similar when the participants were asked if they thought employers should be able to deny a person with an addiction or mental illness a job. Nearly half of respondents thought that addicts should be denied health insurance benefits, while only 20 percent believed the same for the mentally ill.

What Does It Mean?

The results from the survey are clear: addiction is still highly stigmatized, more so than mental illness. The authors of the study point out that mental illness may be less stigmatized because more people view it as a condition over which the patient has no control. The issue of choice is important here. Because an addict made that first choice to start using drugs, she is to blame for her addiction and should be able to make the choice to stop using.

Another factor that the authors point out is how the media portray drug abuse and addiction. We are more likely to see stories about a homeless addict on the street or an inner city addict and drug dealer than we are to see the story of a middle class, suburban woman addicted to her pain pills. We also rarely see stories that are uplifting, that demonstrate how treatment can help addicts get better and overcome their addictions.

The good news is that people are talking about addiction and drug abuse more than ever before. The more we talk about it, the less stigmatized it will become. There was a time when substance abuse was never discussed, so this represents a big shift in a positive direction. But there is still much more change to be made if addicts are to get the treatment they desperately need.

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