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The Stigma of Addiction and Mental Illness: What It Is, Why It Exists, and How We Can Overcome It

de-stigmatizing mental illness

Mental illness and substance addiction are often called “invisible disorders,” in that they are not always seen, nor talked about. Learn how the stigma of addiction and mental illness is harming individuals struggling – and how to break the stigma.

Today, nearly one in five adults in the United States struggle with a mental health disorder. On top of this, every one in six youth (ages 6 to 17) battles a mental illness. Additionally, over 20 million people in the United States struggle with substance addiction. 

Mental illness and addiction are all around us. Right now, these classifications of disorders may be affecting your friend, your neighbor, a co-worker, or even a member of your family. The problem is, they are not always easy to see. While many of us might think we know what a drug addict looks like, or what psychosis looks like, the reality is that we don’t. Mental health disorders, including substance addiction, are experienced differently by everyone. They can affect anyone, of any age, gender, background, or upbringing. And more often than not, they are invisible.

Mental health disorders – such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and ADHD – are not always apparent. Similarly, substance use disorders (which are also classified as chronic brain disorders) are not always obvious. While there are signs that can represent a mental illness, or clues that can signal an addiction, many people have become good at hiding their symptoms. 

Now let’s stop there for a minute. Why do people hide their symptoms when it comes to mental health? Why do not they not, instead, seek professional help for their disorder?

These answers can be summed up in one word: stigma. The stigma of addiction, and the stigma of mental illness overall, is what prevents many people from getting the help they deserve. 

Of the 20 million people struggling with substance abuse, only 11 percent received any professional help. Of the 51 million people struggling with mental illness, less than 50 percent received adequate treatment. Commonly cited reasons for delaying treatment include:

  • Lack of awareness, or denial they have a mental health problem
  • Having a prejudice against people who have a mental illness 
  • Fear of what others might think of them, for being diagnosed with a mental illness

This all contributes to the stigma around addiction and mental health.

What is Stigma?

Stigma is the disapproval of, or discrimination against, someone based on a particular characteristic. Commonly, stigma is formed around health-related characteristics such as mental illness, addiction, and disabilities. Additionally, a stigma exists around gender, race, religion, ethnicity, and sexuality, too.

There are different types of stigma, according to the American Psychiatric Association. These include:

  • Public Stigma, or Social Stigma: This involves negative or discriminatory attitudes towards a given characteristic, such as mental illness.
  • SelfStigma: This refers to the internal shame and negative attitudes one has towards their own condition. 
  • Institutional Stigma: This is a systemic problem in which organizations or policies discriminate against people (intentionally or unintentionally) due to a certain trait, like mental illness.

Often, stigma is rooted in a lack of understanding. People who do not know about substance addiction, as a disease, may develop a (perhaps unintentional) bias against it and those struggling. Sometimes, stigma comes from a fear of the unknown. Those who have not experienced mental illness, for example, may carry some fear or bias towards people with mental health conditions. They may fear the topic of mental illness altogether. 

Breaking the Stigma

The stigma of addiction and mental illness is not fair to those struggling. It is also not fair to their families and loved ones. Most of all, it can lead to great harm. The social stigma of mental health disorders is what leads to self-stigma. Combined, those prevent too many people from getting help.

As Michelle Obama wrote, “At the root of this dilemma is the way we view mental health in this country. Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg or your brain, it’s still an illness, and there should be no distinction.”

Mental illness is a word used to describe an array of health conditions that affect a person’s brain, behavior, mood, emotions, and ways of thinking. Similarly, substance use disorders (informally known as substance addiction) are complex health conditions that change how the brain functions. Simply put, both mental illness and substance addiction are diseases of the brain. They affect how a person thinks, feels, acts, and carries out tasks. They both have a lasting effect on the parts of the brain dedicated to memory, learning, decision-making, and self-control. As a result, both mental health and substance use disorders require ongoing treatment to manage and overcome.

In order to reduce the stigma of mental illness and addiction, we need to recognize these facts. Substance addiction is a chronic disease—it is not a choice. Mental health disorders affect the brain—just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Famous musician Demi Lovato, who has long struggled with mental health and addiction, calls others to think about this, too. She said in an interview with Huffington Post, “I wish people could understand that the brain is the most important organ of our body. Just because you can’t see mental illness like you could see a broken bone, doesn’t mean it’s not as detrimental or devastating to a family or an individual.”

She continues, “I think the more people vocalize what they’re going through – their experience or just simply educating themselves so that they can learn more about what they’re talking about – that’s going to be the key to creating a conversation about mental illness and making it more understood. There’s a lack of compassion for people who have mental illnesses and there’s a lot of judgment. Once you make people realize that mental illness can happen to anybody — and it’s not anybody’s fault — then I think they’ll become more understanding of what mental illness really is.”

If you or a loved one is struggling with mental illness or drug addiction, you can help break the stigma by encouraging conversations about these topics. Despite how common they are in society, mental illness and substance addiction are not largely understood. The more we talk about these disorders – and share the facts about them – the more people will become aware of what they are, why they exist, and how to help those struggling. 

Today, too many people say, “Why doesn’t this stop using drugs?” or “Why do they keep making the choice to use?” To those struggling with eating disorders, people often think, “Why don’t they just eat a meal?” To those with depression, we might think, “Why don’t they just get out of bed?”

These questions also contribute to the stigma of addiction and mental health. Mental health disorders and substance use disorders are complex and chronic conditions. It is not easy to overcome them, and not on one’s own. In most cases, they require professional help.

If your loved one is struggling, you can also encourage them to talk about it. Vocalizing one’s struggles can help to reduce their own self-stigma, as well as build a support system and get into a treatment program. 

Finally, if you have not been touched by mental illness or substance addiction – and even if you have – it is important to overcome the stereotypes around people with addiction, and people with mental illness. Too often, we categorize “drug addicts” as morally-wrong, or out of control, or at their rock bottom. In reality, people struggling with addiction are battling a disease—sometimes they are high-functioning, sometimes they are our own friends. They do not all look or act the same.

“Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.” – Bill Clinton

To learn more about the stigma of addiction and mental illness, or how to get your loved one the help that he or she deserves, please do not hesitate to reach out to Turnbridge at 877-581-1793. Turnbridge is a dual diagnosis treatment center for young adults and teens battling addiction and other mental health disorders.