Stigma More Pronounced with Drug Addiction than with Mental Illness

jhbsphThe results of a recent survey published in the October issue of Psychiatric Services point to the fact that American society can’t decide on how to categorize substance abuse. Is it a medical condition that can be treated as heart disease can be treated, or is substance abuse a personal failure to be overcome?

Colleen L. Barry, PhD, MPP, and associate professor at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health says, “In recent years, it has become more socially acceptable to talk publicly about one’s struggles with mental illness. But with addiction, the feeling is that the addict is a bad or weak person, especially because much drug use is illegal.”

Researchers also found the respondents also had higher levels of opposition to policies that would help addicts in their recovery. And, that 3 in 10 respondents believed that both recovery from substance abuse and mental illness was impossible.

Barry and fellow researchers blame the negative connotation of drug addition on the media’s portrayal of addicts as street drug users in the bad part of town, instead of someone who lives in the suburbs and got hooked on painkillers after a surgery or dealing with chronic pain. To change public opinion, Barry says Americans need to hear more of the inspiring stories of people who, with effective treatments, have been able to move past their addictions to lead sober lives.

“If you can educate the public that these are treatable conditions, we will see higher levels of support for policy changes that will benefit people with mental illness and drug addiction,” stated another study author, Beth McGinty, PhD, MS. Dr. McGinty is also an associate professor at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Both Barry and McGinty believe getting rid of the shame surrounding drug addiction, is a step towards changing public opinion. They say once it would have been unthinkable for people to openly talk about the antidepressants they take. Frank discussions regarding dependency are needed to reshape public opinion.