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The Stigma of Addiction—and How It Makes Recovery Harder

A group of four friends laughing and socializing
Human beings have an innate and natural desire to feel like they belong.


“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”

That’s according to Johann Hari, the author of the New York Times best-selling book, “Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.”

Hari, who shared his beliefs in a TED Radio Hour, explained that the war on drugs is all about punishing people—which doesn’t work. “Policies built on sigma and shame kill people,” he says. “They are deadly.”

How Addiction Stigma is Harmful

Hari says that much of our society’s beliefs about addiction come from experiments done in the ’70s. Rats were put in empty cages with bottles of plain water and bottles of heroin- or cocaine-laced water. In almost every case, the rat became obsessed with the drugged water and kept coming back until it killed itself.

The result? We developed the belief that addiction is caused by addictive substances—end of story.

But then another researcher came along—Bruce Alexander, a psychologist and professor in Vancouver who conducted a series of experiments known as the Rat Park experiments.

Instead of placing a rat in an empty cage with access to drugs, he created a large park 200 times bigger than a cage and filled it with other rats, food, balls, wheels for play and enough space for mating.

The results? Rats that lived full and balanced lives consumed far less drugs.

“Human beings have a natural and innate need to bond,” Hari says. “If you can’t do that … you will bond with something that gives you some sense of relief. You will bond and connect with something because that’s our nature. That’s what we want as human beings.”

Stigma Attached to Addiction: Case Study in Portugal

In 2000, Portugal had a huge drug problem. A full 1 percent of the population was addicted to heroin. In response, the government kept getting more aggressive.

“They punished people and stigmatized them and shamed them more,” Hari explains.

But the problem just got worse until 2001 when the government made a shocking move. It decriminalized all drugs.

All of the money that had been spent on fighting drugs and punishing users, was redirected toward helping people struggling with addiction to connect with society, find jobs and even acquire small business loans.

“The goal was to make sure that every addict in Portugal had something to get out of bed for in the morning,” Hari says.

The result? Within 15 years, drug overdose deaths were down to one per every one million people, the second-lowest in the European Union (only Romania was lower).

What You Can Do About Stigma and Addiction

You may not be able to change public policy, but we can all change the way we think about addiction—and the way we try to help someone break free from it.

Getting someone off of drugs requires more than detox. Remember, the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety; it’s connection. Everyone needs to feel like they have their place in their world. Everyone needs to feel a sense of belonging. Everyone needs to feel they are connected to a higher purpose.

Shame won’t help anyone find those connections, but love, kindness and compassion will.

Hope and Healing at The Raleigh House

The Raleigh House is a residential treatment center located in Denver that believes addiction isn’t just a physical problem. Our master’s level trained therapists get to the root cause of addiction and will help you develop a strategy to manage and enjoy life without drugs or alcohol. Fill out our form or contact us today to learn more about our 90-day drug and alcohol addiction treatment programs.

Tap button to call The Raleigh House.

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