Mental health professionals have long recognized that the stigmatization of people with addictions and mental disorders actually worsens their condition. They are already in a fragile mental and emotional state trying to make sense of the world, but when stigmatization is piled on top of that in the form of judgmental words or ignorant opinions, they often do not have the clarity to process these opinions properly. Sensitivity and insecurity are marked traits of people with addictions and mental disorders. Stigmatization is taken to heart by people battling these conditions, and are interpreted as an affirmation of their fears and insecurities.
The reversal of this ugly scenario is, of course, educating the public on how to understand and treat people with addiction and mental disorder. Awareness needs to develop of what these conditions are and are not. They are considered a mental health disease, and take the same amount of time and energy to recover from as do medical diseases. They are chemical in nature and are caused in part by a person’s genetics and biochemistry, not their behavior and their decision making alone. They are not an excuse, a crutch or a character flaw and they should not be treated like something that is easily remedied. They are highly complex and require professional examination.
Along with a more compassionate, understanding cultural stance on these matters, the other thing that must change is the availability of treatment for addiction and mental disorders. Treatment resources exist, but a majority of people who need them are not accessing them. This is for several reasons. First of all, many people simply do not know that they are available, or know so little about them that they are intimidated by them. Secondly, many people simply cannot afford them due to inadequate health care coverage. This is only beginning to change thanks to recent legislation, but there is still a long way to go before everyone has access to the mental health treatment they need.
The need to change social stigmas around addiction and mental disorder is dire. One in three people lives with either of these conditions, and the avoidance of the matter in our culture is making the situation worse, not better. Addiction and mental disorder make it nearly impossible for a person to feel secure in anything they experience. Their feelings of instability make functioning like everyone else incredibly difficult, but they still try to very regularly. A majority of people who are struggling with a mental disorder or an addiction are not receiving treatment for it, either because they do not know what is available to them or because they do not want to appear weak. This attempt to get by in the world without the mental health that is necessary to cope with it makes a person very susceptible to setbacks and hardships. The last thing this person needs is to be labeled as useless, damaged, dysfunctional or a throw away person. Being exposed to opinions like this can only make things worse.
If we were to stop and question our judgmental behavior, we would understand just how detrimental stigmatizing a person with addiction or a mental disorder is. It is wrong to place judgment on anyone, but when it is done to a person who is already insecure and unstable, recovering from the judgment is going to be much more difficult. Addicts and people with mental disorders are commonly high functioning and intelligent. Even those who are in denial are aware at some level of how different they are from other people. To be aware of your condition is to doubt your own perception frequently, and ignorant criticisms of a person who does not have the self esteem to deflect such estimations is likely to believe them. Intolerance is alive and well within our culture, and many of us are accustomed to thoughtlessly passing judgment or speaking negatively about someone we do not understand. It is time we take care not to pass judgment on people with addictions and mental disorders. We do a disservice to them and to ourselves by not lending compassion to the situation.
Addictions and mental disorders are hard enough to cope with. Adding a stigmatization on top of them only makes functioning harder for those who are struggling with either of these illnesses. Yet, a vast majority of people who are struggling with these conditions have claimed that they feel stigmatized by peers, family, coworkers, social circles and society at large. It cannot be denied that stigmatization has a harmful effect on people, particularly when it has to do with a mental health issue. When someone who is struggling to control an addiction or a mental disorder feels stigmatized, stereotyped or judged, it only serves to make their condition worse because their condition is essentially an inability to cope. We must change the way we assess and speak about people with disorders and addictions in order to help relieve them of their suffering.
The stigmas that addicts and people with mental disorders bare are ones that many people are already aware of. Addicts get labeled as bums, helpless, out of control, having no self control, degenerates and detriments to society. People with mental disorders get labeled as crazy, psychotic, mentally disturbed, dysfunctional and not suitable to have a relationship with. The pain that is caused by these labels is severe. Bringing an addict or a person with a mental disorder to the point where they are ready to admit they need help, and are able to reach out for help, takes immense strength and courage on their part. When someone who does not know them personally comes along and labels them as damaged goods, it can make them retreat back into a dark place and abandon the progress they were making. When someone fragile is made to feel ashamed of their fragility and their other faults, they are in danger of shattering. The way our culture has come to attack addiction and mental disorder instead of support it and care for it is part of the reason it is prevalent.
If you are not personally effected somehow by the existence of mental disorders or addiction, you are in the minority. As much as a third of the North American population has an addiction or a mental illness, which means that almost everyone is personally connected to someone who struggles with one or both of these conditions. When you think about how prevalent conditions like these are, you will realize how inappropriate it is that so much stigmatization, labeling and stereotyping of addicts and those with mental disorders still takes place in our culture. Even though we are informed on how frequently these things effect individuals, we still turn a blind eye when we should be educating ourselves further on how to be more accepting of it.
The truth about people with addictions and disorders is that they have a disease, it is a deeply ingrained problem, it is impossible for them to change overnight and they require support and encouragement in order to heal. Mental health conditions are more evasive than physical conditions, and treating them is not always an exact science. Counselors require many years of training in order to be qualified to assess a person’s mental health. Because a person’s psyche has constantly been evolving since they were born, no two people have identical cases of addiction or mental disorder. This means that a counselor can never perfectly map out a person’s problems, but rather equip them with the resources to understand their own thinking and behavior, then teach them the tools to change their thinking and behavior.
Addiction and mental disorders alike have been determined by the medical and mental health community to be a condition that is detectable on a neurological and biochemical level. Treating them actually involves the process of rewiring a person’s neural network in order to reprogram their ways of thinking and behaving. Patience, encouragement, understanding and acceptance are what is needed to help a person struggling with an addiction or disorder get to a mentally healthy place.
Those who struggle with addiction and mental health problems exist among everyone else in large numbers. They hold jobs, raise families, manage responsibilities and form relationships like everyone else. It is estimated that nearly one third of North American society has struggled with addiction or mental health issues at some point in their lives. However, North American society has the tendency to place stigmas on these individuals, whether consciously or unconsciously, that have the effect of making them feel like second-class citizens. In the media and in pop culture, people with addictions and mental health issues are portrayed as weak, dysfunctional, threatening, incapable, lazy and odd. It is very important that these stigmas are put to rest, as they are marginalizing and damaging to people who have to live with these disorders.
In our society, passing judgment on people who are addicted or struggle with mental health problems is justified. People who are ignorant of these disorders hold the people afflicted with them entirely responsible for their condition. They are not educated about the psychological, environmental, behavioral and biological reasons behind mental disorders, so they simply assume that people afflicted with these disorders are lesser than they are. The enforcement of this stigma actually serves to worsen these disorders. The best thing for people struggling with a disorder, who are already in a confused and fragile emotional state, is encouragement. When they are met with discouragement, it is a setback and an obstacle for them.
Ostracizing people with addiction and mental health disorders is also largely justified. They often are turned into a joke in social media or pop culture, and are relentlessly made fun of. Or, they are treated like they carry a contagious disease and are avoided completely. This treatment is also quite malicious and hurtful. Living with addiction or a mental disorders is very challenging, and it takes incredible effort on the part of the person afflicted to change. Society needs to find a way to replace criticism with compassion and judgment with tolerance. Anyone making an effort to improve their lives deserves respect and encouragement.