Stigma and Its Impact on Addiction

Alcoholism in the family

For a number of political, religious and social reasons, addiction has historically been perceived by many as a reflection of moral weakness or criminal behavior. It has also long been associated with inner cities and poor neighborhoods. This, often incorrect, perception has acted as a barrier to treatment for many. Many addicts have faced the admonishment that they just need to toughen up, to get it under control. These views of addiction as a lack of control or weakness often extend to family members or friends cutting the addict off further from a means with which to seek help. These incorrect beliefs collectively make up what is known as stigma.1

When people aren’t aware or properly educated about a subject like addiction, they may adopt preconceived ideas about it. When someone has an unpleasant experience because of an addict, they may come to believe that all people who struggle with drugs and alcohol are likely to cause similar, unpleasant experiences.

How can the stigma attached to addiction be reduced? In many ways, removing the stigma associated with addiction will depend on educating people on what addiction is and how they can help addicts get better.

Removing Stigma and Stereotypes

Addiction is a set of complex learned negative behaviors which continue despite the efforts of the addict to control or stop the use of a substance. This inability to stop is reinforced by the biological process of tolerance, which causes the body to be physically dependent on the substance. Physical dependence produces extreme cravings for the substance and more and more of the substance is required to achieve relief.

This biologically reinforced cycle of addiction is nearly impossible to break on one’s own. What results is a worsening crisis in which the individual finds it impossible to continue living without substances. This desperate struggle results in impaired decision-making and at times extreme behaviors that are the hallmarks of addiction.

It is these behaviors and poor decision-making that then represent the most common stereotypes of addiction. The belief that these behaviors represent a willful choice or a conscious decision on the part of the addict is simply false. Criminality most often results from the desperation to find the substance that one has become addicted to. These are not moral decisions, they are decisions made of desperation to end the ceaseless cravings and withdrawal symptoms that begin almost immediately after a drug is consumed.

Stigma ultimately prevents individuals who suffer from addiction from seeking treatment by marginalizing them and creating an environment of fear in which someone coming forward for help might instead find incarceration or punishment. By reducing this stigma and offering effective treatment the cycle can be ended.


  1. Dr. Nora Volkow, NIDA 2020, Apr 22. “Addressing the Stigma that Surrounds Addiction”. NIDA article: ↩︎