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The Lingering Stigma of Addiction and Mental Health

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addiction-and-mental-health-stigmaDid you know that most people with a substance addiction also have a concurrent mental health condition?

This is often in the form of clinical depression, anxiety, etc.

Too often, there is a mental health stigma pinned on those with these conditions, and they fail to get the proper care to address both problems. And they're related.


According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website’s Mental Health By The Numbers page, “Among the 20.2 million adults in the U.S. who experienced a substance use disorder, 50.5%—10.2 million adults—had a co-occurring mental illness.”

Our experience suggests it's much higher, but 10 million is still a very big number.

The majority of those who struggle with addiction also cope with a mental health disorder. In other words, they have a dual diagnosis.

What is Dual Diagnosis?

If you have a mental health issue along with a behavioral issue, then by definition you have a dual diagnosis. One common dual diagnosis is anxiety or depression along with alcoholism or substance abuse.

Though more than 10 million people in America have a dual diagnosis, there’s still a stigma attached. Lessening the surrounding mental health stigma can help individuals struggling with addiction to seek help and receive effective dual diagnosis treatment.

Why Mental Health Stigma Doesn’t Make Sense

mental-health-stigmaThe shaming nature of stigma means that most people are too afraid to question the logic behind it.

But consider: does the social discomfort incurred from mental health treatment make sense?

Is it logical?  

Most of us don't hide the fact that we visit doctors to treat physical concerns. If we have a sore throat or an infection, our cultural norms tell us to see a medical professional.

Yet when we have a mental or emotional illness, the stigma says, “Don't tell anybody."

The pain from mental and emotional issues can be just as intense as the pain of physical ailments. Yet if an illness doesn’t manifest in physical symptoms, we tend to discount and minimize it.

However, modern scientific studies (such as Moral Emotions and Moral Behavior, published in 2007’s Annual Review of Psychology) tell us that untreated mental and emotional issues actually lead to physical illness!

Shame and guilt are the most toxic of emotions, the very first to manifest as physical ailments. As such, seeking treatment for these “invisible” issues is a powerful form of preventive medicine.

How Society Contributes To Mental Health Stigma

Our hyper-competitive society contributes to the stigma surrounding mental health conditions. In this stressful, “dog eat dog” world, admitting any form of weakness puts you at a disadvantage.

It’s also common in our culture to compare ourselves to others, which discourages us from acknowledging our internal issues with the threat of social judgment.

But hiding the truth causes even more stress and fear … which contribute to more physical and mental ailments.

We all ask ourselves, “What do other people think about me?” Yet what other people think about you has nothing to do with you. It's entirely about them!

Getting your self-worth from what everybody else thinks of you is a game that you will never win, because everybody wants you to be somebody different.

Instead of playing this no-win game, you can take the radical step of figuring out who you are and being true to yourself.

Social Media: Help or Hindrance?

Social-media-and-emotional healthSocial media and Internet access is a double-edged sword when it comes to fighting mental health stigma.

On one hand, the Internet has lessened the shame of mental health issues by debunking the “I’m the only one dealing with this” myth.

Nowadays, you can Google any mental health issue and find a community.

On the other hand, social media also offers you more opportunities to think less of yourself. Looking at other people’s glamorized photos and witty status updates invites you to play the comparison game. It's the rare friend or colleague who posts the challenges and failures in addition to the good times.

So pay attention to how your social media use affects your internal state. If you notice that it’s doing more harm than good, summon your courage and take a step back.

In the words of recovering alcoholic and bulimic Glennon Doyle Melton: “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.”

Practical Ways to Lessen Mental Health Stigma

  • Don’t use outdated or offensive terminology related to mental health; terms such as retarded or crazy are not appropriate or helpful. 

  • Employ person-first language and do your best to avoid conflating the person with their mental health condition. For example, you might say, “She is dealing with depression” rather than, “She is depressed.” The former separates the person from the depression, while the latter implies that depression equals identity. It’s a subtle distinction, but since language shapes our thoughts and beliefs, why not speak in terms of personal empowerment?

  • Know your rights. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires employers to provide protected leave for specific health conditions, including addiction treatment.

  • Recognize that addiction isn’t about moral weakness or lack of willpower. There’s a common misconception that addiction means people are flawed, bad, and less-than. The truth is that addictions are coping mechanisms, and once people address the underlying core issues driving those behaviors, they can begin anew.

Mental Health Treatment Plan

As children, we're taught how to read, write, and do arithmetic, but we’re not taught to take care of ourselves mentally and emotionally. Most of us don’t have the tools we need to take care of the rejections, judgments, and limiting beliefs we carry inside.

But the good news is, it doesn’t have to be that way...

You can create a mental health treatment plan to go along side of addiction treatment.

Our program specializes in dual diagnosis cases and includes a mental health treatment plan for each participant. To learn more click the link below:

At The Clearing we base our entire approach on healing underlying core issues.  Learn more about dual diagnosis. 

Caroline McGraw

This post was written by Caroline McGraw

In addition to her work as "the voice of The Clearing", Caroline Garnet McGraw writes about trading perfectionism for possibility at A Wish Come Clear. Visit and receive your free Perfectionist Recovery Toolkit today!

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