How Media Fuels the Stigma of Addiction

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Although the industry of addiction treatment and recovery has made progressive leaps and bounds over the past few decades, the field still faces a large hurdle of outdated ideologies that prevent innovative and evidence-based practices from being implemented. This restrictive force is known as stigma, and it is continually strengthened by how everyday people are presented information about substance abuse and dependency. The major culprits of misinformation include the Internet, television, and other sources of media.

The current state of addiction stigma

There is a distinct disconnect of how addiction is perceived by the public and professionals. While organizations like the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) define the condition as a chronic and progressive disease, many individuals view addictive disorders as a character flaw.

This inaccurate view can be largely traced back to the explosion of drug-related reports during the 1970s and 1980s. Specifically, the Nixon administration launched the “War on Drugs,” which began to attach harsh sentences and criminal labels to substance use. This movement was furthered in the next decade by the increasing coverage of substance epidemics and the campaigns that combated them. Due to this prolonged narrative in the news, a negative perception of addiction was established.

In fact, a 2014 study from John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health concluded that drug addiction is viewed more negatively than mental illness. Researcher Colleen L. Barry, Ph.D., after recording the attitudes of 709 participants:

  • Twenty-two percent reported they would be willing to work closely with someone diagnosed with an addiction
  • Sixty-four percent said that employers should be able to deny employment to those with addiction
  • Forty-three percent were opposed to allowing individuals with addiction to have the same health insurance benefits as healthy people

Drug biases by the media

Barry and her team cite these damaging trends to stories of drug addiction portrayed in the media. Sources often focus on drug users from bad economic environments instead of middle-class citizens who have become addicted to prescription painkillers. Instead of being seen as human beings, those that relapse or do not complete treatment are labeled as failures.

Multiple studies on newspapers by the UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC) showed that published topics about drugs are typically related to criminal activities and celebrities. These stories demonize and marginalize drug users while reinforcing already existing prejudices.

How to reduce addiction-related stigma

Fortunately, a number of resources have been created in order to address this stigma in media. In a toolkit produced by the Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network (ATTC), integral steps for improving media communication of addiction include:

  • Avoid using labels that define people by their condition
  • Do not sensationalize the issue of addiction or the process of recovery
  • Do not generalize populations struggling with addiction or seeking recovery
  • Use substance-related terms with their intended meanings, rather than metaphors or euphemisms that diminish their severity
  • Overall, be willing to learn more, speak out, and treat others as whole and dignified human beings






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