How Stigma Kills The Addicted

And Four Simple Things We Can Do About It

by Laura Harrison


This article is meant to begin a conversation- a crucial conversation to which I will continue to contribute, and that I hope to which others will also join me in contributing; a ball that needs to keep rolling and growing. According to the CDC, in 2015, America lost 33,000 people to opioid overdose, more than any year previous to that. THIRTY-THREE THOUSAND people, with aching, tattered hearts, struggled and lost their lives. That means someone’s best friend, soulmate, or child, gone. This is unacceptable. We need to change this. This is not a scholarly article, but an introduction and invitation to inspire us as people and those of us who are scholars to begin a new approach to dealing with addiction, a humanistic one, one that is likely to be more effective.

Last night, a kind-hearted person died, a person that I went to school with, and interacted with some in the last five years. My heart aches for those who knew him better still. He carried a lot of pain within him, but had a most noble heart. It was palpable how much he cared and wanted to feel cared about. So while this conversation is one that I have carried within me for some time, today, I begin to speak out, in his honor, for those who currently struggle with addiction, love someone who struggles with addiction, or lost a loved one to that same horrific battle. Today, I will skim the surface, but this is a beginning, and I want anyone who is moved by this article and subject to share, and to commit to some form of manageable action- first within themselves.


How Does Stigma Kill?

The common perception of those who are addicted in the United States, no doubt a result of the War on Drugs policy of using fear tactics and shaming of those who use, has resulted in a strong attitude that rejects, dehumanizes, and belittles those who struggle with addiction. Common culture refers to the addicted as scumbags, and some people are cold enough to consider their deaths somehow less of a loss than of any other, or worse, just desserts. These prevailing attitudes tend to not be fully carried or promoted by those who are close to the one who struggles, however, this attitude is prevalent enough that a person addicted is well aware of them. Shame is the result. A person who is addicted, even the most brazen and deeply-ill, is NOT proud to be an addict. They are ashamed. And this leads us to what drives a person to become addicted in the first place…

What is the Root of Addiction?

I’m in full support of the theories and work of Vancouver’s Dr. Gabor Mate, who says that the root of addiction is trauma. Addiction is not a genetic disease, but a dangerously faulty coping strategy that can be learned from those that model it, and it is a mental health issue. Stating that again- addiction is a mental illness rooted in emotional trauma. It is coping gone wrong, very wrong.

Trauma is not what people commonly think.– it is not limited to just military personnel or first responders, or those who have been victims of physical violence. Emotional trauma can occur in silent ways, in seemingly innocent ways. Neglecting a child emotionally, even just frequently being too stressed and busy to pay full attention to them, for example, can be traumatic for that child, and the impact will be displayed less in their immediate behavior, and more in their mental-emotional state and sense of self-worth as they grow and become adults.  Especially during our formative years, we are fragile. Our inner voices come from the words spoken to us and over us, and sadly, words of praise do not etch as deeply as words of disdain and disappointment. Every single person who uses is using to get away from an emotional pain. This means that the people who are being treated as low-life scumbags are actually in a frequent state of emotional torment- they are suffering in a mental health crisis. The suffering builds, augmented by the shame of their behaviors, and their desperation to escape grows.Their lack of worth further shrinks to oblivion. Those without self-worth are not prone to make healthy choices and are likely to

Without excusing the desperate and deplorable behaviors some people adopt when addicted, we, as a society, need to recognize that these are suffering people and that the current system is wholly inadequate, and does not serve them in the way that they need. They need respect, not shame, and to be supported in ways that help them to value themselves enough to endure facing and healing the inner torment from which they run by using.

What Can We Really Do About Addiction?

First, understand that while this is a societal failure and a failure of the mental health system in America, placing undue burden on your own shoulders cannot solve the problem. Remember that shame is the root of more suffering, and is extremely demotivating. Please understand that sometimes so that our own ship does not sink, to protect our own mental health, we need to step away from those who are drowning in addiction- not because we are apathetic, but because we too are human, fragile, and limited, and we need to accept that. Please understand and carry this within your mind and heart- you were doing the best you could with what you had at the moment. And so was your loved one that succumbed to addiction. And so are those still struggling.

A person’s best is not always pretty. In a society that expects us to be an ever-functioning cog in the mass productivity machine and never have human needs, and that stigmatizes all mental health struggles, we are set up to not have the time, space, and resources we need to truly heal or step into our wholeness. We are filled with unspoken ideals that create heavy, thick, suffocating shame for having needs, for being human, and for our emotions ever getting in the way of doing stuff.  Please, take a moment, and see how twisted and sick that ideal is- and in the words of Jiddu Krishnamurti:

“It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

The failure is systemic, yet, we are part of the system. So while I implore you not to laden yourself with guilt and drown in how you wish you could change the past, I ask that you use the sting of lost opportunities and past mistakes to motivate you to create change NOW, in very possible and effective ways.

  1. Don’t Allow Shaming Talk: Just like racism will not end unless those who are not impacted by it speak out against it when it arises in life, those who are not addicted need to speak up. We need to respectfully, non-confrontationally, but clearly and firmly address speech that belittles those who are addicted, calling them scumbags, or stating or implying that their lives are worth less than any other. Gossiping about someone who is struggling just makes the person doing the talking seem pretty awful and insecure.
  2. Don’t Turn Anyone Away: Now, again, you are a human, with limits, so it is okay to not be a 24 hour mental health clinic, especially considering you are probably not a mental health practitioner. I also do not mean that you are responsible to stay up all night with everyone you know who struggles. However, I have learned the hard way to check in when someone randomly reaches out to me, even when I’m exhausted, especially someone who is struggling with addiction (or depression, suicidal ideation, severe anxiety, and so on). Maybe make a 5 minute rule, giving them 5 minutes even when you don’t feel you have time, and try to be real, supportive, and LISTEN first, before you give advice. People who hurt need first to be HEARD, acknowledged and “seen” emotionally. They need to feel like they, and their suffering, actually matter outside of themselves. THAT will actually penetrate into their dry, cracked, bleeding heart like much-needed balm. Advice is not effective when someone is that low, they are not ready and it is not typically useful. Make recommendations of a local resource, be warm, or find an online recommendation.. even an app like Insight meditation timer that contains free guided meditations that can be soothing.. wholly inadequate to solve anything, but sometimes it only has to be just enough to get someone through a long, dark night.
  3. Empower Them By Example: We may all well know not to enable drug-use anymore than we should encourage those who struggle with alcoholism to drink, but remember the reason WHY a person engages in addictive behavior- to escape pain, shame, guilt and feelings that feel deadly painful within them, including a very fragile and damaged sense of self-worth. People who feel worthy and empowered do not risk their lives to avoid their emotions. They seek support from others, a crucial part of human emotional health. So when dealing with a person struggling with addiction, do not encourage addiction or make excuses for it, but do not shame them for it. Instead, ennoble them. It is true- the change has to come from within them. All you can do is water that seed of positive change and strength within them. Shame will not do it. Tell them that they deserve a better life or are too good for those actions, but tell them that this is because of the good you see in them. And share it. Try not to put pressure on them, but let them know that you feel they are worthy and specifically WHY. Model and show them healthy ways to support themselves and their needs emotionally and physically. Be an example of how to honor your human needs and still fulfill your responsibilities. Be real.
  4. Celebrate the Good Tirelessly: We need to get over ourselves and the faulty mindset we were reared with that made us feel like celebrating each other was somehow wrong or desperate. Life beats the hell out of all of us, and we are nourished to hear that our existence, in all of its human frailty and imperfection, brings joy to another. Even a person with strong self-worth will be nourished and amazed, and heart-melted grateful, to hear the ways they have made a positive impact on another’s life. It may be hard to hear and believe to ears that are so burned with feeling worthless and hearing reasons to support that from society and the world, but the more a person hears why they are worthy, the more likely they are to soften to the idea and maybe start to believe it themselves.


The stigma associated with addiction, and with all mental health issues, is what isolates people who are struggling the most. The isolation can be said to be the most common factor at the heart of the emotional pain and trauma that drives the machine of addiction. Feeling ashamed, guilty, disappointing, unworthy, trapped, and isolated are the most frequent emotions to run away from, so any actions and words that feed these monsters, in life and in therapy, are going to deepen the problem, NOT alleviate it. The feelings of shame due to stigma prevent people from reaching out for the services that they need. Fear tactics and shame or any threats that hinge the love or acceptance of a support figure or family member on the overcoming the addiction or success in responsibilities is also going to fall short and lead to more pressure, not true inspiration. People are responsible for their own actions, sure, but we are also social creatures that can only thrive with appropriate social support, connection, and knowing that we truly matter outside of ourselves. People are still handling the burden of their own healing and growth, but in the right kind of support, they will have others to “hold the space”, not micromanage, but just show up and show love and acceptance for the heart, mind, and soul of a person through the good, the bad, and the ugly.

This is a herculean task for those supporting those struggling with addiction, because their torment is like a black hole- so supporters, get the support YOU need too.  Imagine handling that black hole alone… that is the life of one struggling with trauma or addiction who feel isolated or too ashamed to reach out when they hurt them most. Understand that professionals should offer the bulk of care for those who are most dangerous to themselves and others. Also know that if a person refuses services and support, that is NOT your fault. All you can do is maintain your best integrity in the interactions you do have with them. This is an oversimplified initiation to a grassroots societal shift. We need to end the stigma on all mental health struggles, respect our fellow human beings, and become the change the world so desperately needs by simply changing our daily actions. We need to promote understanding of what addiction really is. The addiction is a desperate method of coping that becomes ritualistic. Knowing this can change some things. It changes the way we view those who struggle with this kind of torment. And changing the way we view them can help them to see themselves as something more and someone worthy as well.



My deepest condolences to all who have lost loved ones to addiction. To those that struggle now with addiction, please know that you matter more than you can feel, and you can overcome the demons, please keep seeking supports until you find ones that matter and really work for you– you are not failing us, the system is failing you. To those with loved ones still battling, please read Dr. Gabor Mate’s work, and let that bring you on a journey of shifting the tools you have for being a support to your beloved. Every person on this earth matters, and I’m so sorry that we live in a world that sometimes makes us feel worthless. I’m sorry for every soul that falls through society’s cracks. Be honest, set boundaries, but be compassionate. We all hurt enough, and no one needs more suffering. We all need more reasons to believe in the good and the value of our lives.



Laura Harrison is a writer, yoga therapist, and life coach, working on her PhD and license as a psychologist in New York State. She is an advocate for new social-emotional models in the modern world. Laura aims to empower and promote the healing of those struggling with trauma, addiction, or trying to find a way to be themselves in a society that does not yet appropriately include those with different neural pathways than the average (autistic, highly-sensitive, etc). See more on her work at or follow her on Facebook and Instagram @Laurainspires



Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015) Retrieved on November 27, 2017 from

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s