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How Stigma Perpetuates Problems With Opiate Dependence and Hinders Treatment

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Decades ago, people whispered the word “cancer” and were afraid to publicly acknowledge they had the dreaded disease.  Although cancer has moved into the limelight, other diseases like addiction remain heavily stigmatized.  Experts in addiction research believe this is unfortunate, because it reinforces the idea that addiction happens to those who are “weak” or lack self control.  Understanding the factors that cause and perpetuate opiate dependence can help you realize that you’re not facing this disease alone.

Know the Statistics: You’re Not Alone

Opiate dependence can feel extraordinarily isolating, and many people struggling to control their opiate use feel as though they are the only one with this problem.  However, this could not be farther from the truth.  In fact, an estimated 2.1 million Americans suffer from prescription opioid abuse, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.  This number has more than quadrupled since 1999.
These numbers show that even if a person is not struggling with opiate dependence, he or she likely knows someone who has suffered from opiate abuse.  Sadly, the stigma associated with addiction causes many people to keep silent about their condition.

The Biological Underpinnings of Addiction

Unfortunately, the stigma associated with opiate dependence is perpetuated by people who believe that addiction is firmly within a person’s control.  While it’s true that we control our actions and can make changes to overcome addictive behaviors, the roots of opiate dependence are biological.
When a person first takes opiates, the chemicals travel into the brain and attach to a special type of receptor on brain cells.  These cells are found in the brain’s reward pathways, meaning that taking an opiate results in feelings of pleasure.  Binding of opiates to these receptors also triggers a series of events that create a positive memory, causing the brain to crave more of the drug to re-live that pleasurable experience.
Scientists have found that some people’s brains are naturally more sensitive to these reward experiences.  This places them at greater risk of addiction, simply because of genetic or biological factors that impact their brain structure.  Thus, stigmatizing people suffering from opiate dependence is unfair, as many opiate users were biologically primed to become addicted.

Consequences of Stigma

Stigmatizing opiate dependence helps no one.  Not only does it have profound effects on the individual struggling with opiate abuse, but it also impacts their families and society at large.  Some of the most common effects of stigma include:

  • Reluctance to seek treatment.  One of the most dangerous and destructive consequences of stigma is that people are scared to seek help.  Many worry about what their friends, family, or employer will think if they check into a rehab facility.
  • Social isolation.  Many people dealing with addiction begin withdrawing from friends, family members, and others in their lives.  Often, they may view this as a way to avoid the “shame” of their condition.
  • Depression or anxiety.  Stigma is associated with increased risk of depression and anxiety.  These, in turn, make seeking treatment more challenging.
  • A “once an addict, always an addict” mentality.  Even after successfully receiving treatment for addiction, many people feel as though they are permanently labeled “addicts.”
  • Decreased funding or support for people experiencing opiate dependence.  Perhaps the most destructive effect of stigma is that it decreases public support for government funding of addiction research.  This prevents scientists from developing evidence-based practices to treat opiate dependence.

If you’re struggling to control your opiate use, you’re not alone. Contact us today to receive a compassionate, judgment-free evaluation and recommendations for treatment.

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