Study finds stigma of drug addiction worse than mental illness

A study from Johns Hopkins University found that, overall, society is more likely to have a negative attitude toward those with drug addictions than people dealing with mental illness. The findings also revealed that most people do not support the concept of housing, insurance and employment benefits that are given to people with a substance abuse disorder. The findings were published in the journal Psychiatric Services.

A confused perception of drug addiction

Currently, society’s mindset of drug addiction seems to be in limbo. They are unsure whether to view addiction as a chronic condition, such as diabetes, or as a personal issue that needs to be dealt with.

The prevalence of mental illness vs. drug addiction

However, drug addiction is much more prevalent than mental illness. The National Institute of Mental Health noted that in 2012, 18.6 percent of adults had some sort of a mental disorder. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that 25.9 percent of people 18 or older abused or were dependent on illicit drugs or alcohol during 2012.

Though many in the medical world know that both mental illness and substance abuse are treatable health disorders, the public tends to view addiction as a personal failing, the researchers noted.

“In recent years, it has become more socially acceptable to talk publicly about one’s struggles with mental illness,” lead study author Colleen Barry, Ph.D., stated. “But with addiction, the feeling is that the addict is a bad or weak person, especially because much drug use is illegal.”

The study authors examined a group of 709 participants during the month of November in 2013. They were surveyed about their thoughts on people with mental illness or an addiction. The questions asked mainly focused on societal stigmas, negative attitudes or thoughts, treatment and policy.

A negative view of drug addiction

The participants had noticeably more negative opinions on people who battle drug addiction than those with mental illness. The researchers also discovered that people may be more opposed to the idea of policies that help people with substance abuse disorders than those with mental illness.

Only 22 percent of those surveyed noted they would work closely on a project with a person battling addiction. However, 62 percent of the participants noted they would work with a person with a mental illness. Some even believe that those with addiction should not work. The findings revealed that 64 percent believed employers should deny people with substance abuse work. Another 43 percent noted that people with addictions should not get health insurance benefits any different than the general public. Conversely, 21 percent were against giving those same benefits to people with mental illness.

Those surveyed did agree on one point: Only 3 in 10 believed that recovery from either mental illness or addiction is impossible.

The media’s influence

The study authors speculate that these stigmas could be formed by the media. Often, the only stories shown on the news are of a drug deal gone wrong in a poor metropolitan area. The stories of affluent people addicted to prescription painkillers are not covered. People who relapse are viewed as failures instead of those battling a chronic condition that is hard to maintain. The stories of people who have faced and overcome addiction are far and few between, the researchers noted.

Barry also stated that long ago, discussing taking antidepressants was controversial. Nowadays, that discussion is incredibly common. These casual conversations often shape public opinion.

“The more shame associated with drug addiction, the less likely we as a community will be in a position to change attitudes and get people the help they need,” stated Beth McGinty, Ph.D.

The researchers concluded that educating the public on these conditions will help change their opinion and help garner support for policy changes that improve treatment and living for people with substance abuse and mental disorders.

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