Celebrating Recovery and Overcoming Stigma

Every September, Recovery Month is dedicated to the  support for and promotion of substance use recovery and evidence-based treatments. This year’s theme, “Recovery is for Everyone,” aims, through a series of events, to increase awareness of SUDs, celebrate those in recovery, and praise the dedicated service of providers who help make recovery possible.

It is estimated that around one million adults live with a substance use disorder  (SUD).[1] Furthermore, five percent of American adolescents, 1.3 million teenagers, are suffering from an SUD.  The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration states that nearly two percent of these young people are also struggling with co-occurring mental health conditions.[2]

What’s more, overdose deaths in the last year have risen by nearly 30%, for a total of around 93,000 fatalities.[3]

The onset of an SUD is complex and entails numerous genetic, environmental, and social variables. Individuals from all walks of life can find themselves trapped in the clutches of a Substance Use Disorder because dependence on a substance is not a clear-cut result of age, race, economic level, upbringing, profession, gender, personality traits, or marital status. 

The Role Stigma Plays

Recovery Month aims to challenge the pervasive stigma of substance use, dependence, and recovery.

Individuals struggling with an SUD face immense cultural and social stigma because there is a perception that someone with an SUD is a particular sort of person. Because the widespread negative opinion these individuals contend with haunts their every action and interaction, making the journey to recovery poses a significant challenge.

Stigma is a term that describes our social perceptions of a person or situation. There are several types of stigma that can affect people’s perceptions of substance use.  Cultural stigma is the most pertinent as this poses a direct threat to an individual’s access to treatment, the likelihood of having peer support, and their own level of self-esteem and self-worth. The two fundamental types of cultural stigmas are Public and Social Stigma:

Public Stigma

This type of stigma is created through stereotyping. A stereotype of someone with an SUD may be that they have moral failings or that they are nihilistic, selfish, lazy, or untrustworthy. These views collectively create widespread negative attitudes towards these individuals. This, in turn, will have a detrimental impact on treatment and recovery.[4]

Social Stigma

Social stigma stems from the dominant beliefs of the collective. Acceptable and unacceptable behaviors are judged and regulated by the group. We see this in action when people attempt to coerce others to change their behavior to fit in or by ostracizing someone deemed unacceptable. This rejection is commonly witnessed in group dynamics involving family, friends, or coworkers.[5] 

For someone battling an SUD, each day is a struggle. Not only do these individuals face isolation, guilt, and shame, but they also encounter rejection and obstacles when they attempt to seek help. 

All too frequently, healthcare providers, even therapists, perceive a patient’s SUD as “their fault.” This often results in substandard care or even a rejection of treatment altogether.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for people requiring assistance for acute intoxication to be expelled by ER staff due to stigmatized perceptions that these individuals will steal prescription medication, steal equipment/assets, or be violent or volatile.[6]

The Power of Connection

“The Opposite of Addiction is not Sobriety – It is Human Connection”

                                                   ~ Johann Hari

Self-belief is vital for recovery from any medical condition. Numerous studies have demonstrated that a positive attitude is crucial for healing. We are social creatures who thrive in a community, so our relationships play a vital role in our mental health, physical health, and longevity.

The group, particularly acceptance from the group, provides safety. Our stress responses are lowered, and unhealthy coping mechanisms we may have established are no longer required to the same extent.

Individuals with an SUD prosper when they have a positive support group to turn to in times of difficulty. It is therefore essential for anyone seeking to conquer their substance use disorder to find a recovery community.

Breaking the Barriers

This year’s Recovery Month highlights the fact that an SUD is a medical condition just as any other. While many people have compassion for those suffering from chronic pain, disease, depression, or PTSD, their stigma-influenced attitudes have too often allowed them to empathize less with substance users.

Recovery Month wishes to “celebrate the gains made by those in recovery, just as we celebrate improvements made by those who are managing other health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, asthma, and heart disease.”

Substance Use Disorder can not be cured through willpower alone. Detoxification from a substance can be highly hazardous, even fatal in some instances. For example, specialized clinical treatment is recommended for those quitting alcohol, as alcohol withdrawal symptoms (AWS) can trigger life-threatening health complications.[7]

Individuals desiring recovery need access to professional treatment programs. They may require inpatient hospitalization, a mixture of inpatient and outpatient care, a sober home, a sober coach, or mentor, and, crucially, a supportive community of like-minded individuals.

It is our collective duty to remove the barriers of stigma and see the people before us who are in pain, experiencing difficulty, and in need of our help. Without education and awareness, these individuals will not receive the support they so desperately need.

If you are concerned about any issues discussed in this blog, please contact Heather R. Hayes & Associates. Call 800-335-0316 or email info@heatherhayes.com.


[1] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2019). Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed tables. Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/

[2] “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health”. SAMSHA, 2018, https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/cbhsq-reports/NSDUHNationalFindingsReport2018/NSDUHNationalFindingsReport2018.pdf. Accessed 18 Aug 2021.

[3] A Record Number of Americans Died from Drug Overdoses in 2020”. The Economist, 2021, https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2021/07/15/a-record-number-of-americans-died-from-drug-overdoses-in-2020.

[4] Sai, Alexander C. et al. “Stigma as a Fundamental Hindrance to the United States Opioid Overdose Crisis Response”. PLOS Medicine, vol 16, no. 11, 2019, p. e1002969. Public Library Of Science (Plos), doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1002969. Accessed 3 Mar 2021.

[5] Mental Illness-Related Structural Stigma:”. Mentalhealthcommission.Ca, 2013, https://www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/sites/default/files/MHCC_OpeningMinds_MentalIllness-RelatedSructuralStigmaReport_ENG_0_0.pdf.

[6] “Addressing the Stigma that Surrounds Addiction | National Institute on Drug Abuse”. National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2021, https://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/noras-blog/2020/04/addressing-stigma-surrounds-addiction.

[7] Long, Drew et al. “The Emergency Medicine Management of Severe Alcohol Withdrawal”. The American Journal of Emergency Medicine, vol 35, no. 7, 2017, pp. 1005-1011. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.ajem.2017.02.002. Accessed 25 May 2021.

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