Definition of Stigma
If you look up the definition of ‘Stigma’ in the dictionary you will see it as being defined as “a mark of shame or discredit.” It’s been prevalent in human culture since the very beginnings of society, and it’s use and branding of people can be easily traced back to Ancient Greece, where a stigma was an unfortunate brand or mark used on slaves or other individuals whom ‘authorities’ deemed as inferior or morally corrupt to all others in society.
When we talk about social stigmas we can quote the great sociologist, Erving Goffman, who describes it as the “act of disapproval or discrimination of a person based on perceivable social characteristics, most often dealing with culture, gender, race, and health (illness and disease).”
Stigmas have long been a tool for marginalising those who have characteristics which are labelled as unsavoury by society in general. In this day and age, like most things, stigma has evolved in its meaning and use. According to the Association for Psychological Science, it is now described as “the invisible mark made by negative social perceptions, a mark that can hurt just as much as a physical brand.” Simply put, it is still a deliberate marking of a person to indicate a difference through characteristics.
As South Africans, (with our difficult and tempestuous fight for equality not forgotten) we are well aware how race has often been (and sometimes continues to be) stigmatised. In that same bucket of stigma sit personal struggles with addiction and mental health issues, which, despite decades of anti-stigma campaigns, bear the brunt of attention.
The negative consequences of alcohol and other drug addictions can cause embarrassment and shame amongst those affected. It acts like fuel for the fire, perpetuating the harmful perceptions of addiction seen by society; this then exacerbates the difficulties those with addiction and mental health issues already experience. It’s a horrible cycle of abuse.
What you need to take into account is that sometimes the stigma surrounding mental health and addiction often discourages those affected from reaching out and looking for help. Due to the shame they feel in admitting that they have such problems, they feel a sense of despair and decline the path of rehabilitation.
SA Addiction Crisis Stigma
Africans are less likely to seek treatment for drug addiction compared to the rest of the world. A past study into addiction by the National Substance Abuse Treatment Symposium revealed some horrific stats. According to Jason Eligh of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), only one in 18 people who use drugs in Africa seek treatment, as opposed to the world average of one in six. Taking into account addiction crisis gripping South Africa, this means a staggering number of people are not receiving the treatment they need, presumably to avoid the negative consequences.
Drug use is not always seen in the correct (or rather, most helpful) light. It’s often seen as a criminal and moral issue rather than a health issue. A person with an addiction, or addictive past can be quickly dismissed when job hunting, for example. A person with a medical condition would not feel the same discrimination; as empathy from the potential employer would be the reaction. Empathy unfortunately is not always felt with former drug addicts, and that is a direct result of the stigma attached to the recovering addict. This marginalisation is so powerful that it often deters individuals from taking the necessary steps to stay alive.
While debunking these stigmata is key to tackling addiction in South Africa, unravelling a deep social construct takes more time than those suffering from addiction and mental health may have in their lifetimes. There are wonderful examples however of efforts by local and national government organisations to de-stigmatise addiction. These include anti-drug abuse days and Anti-Substance Abuse Campaign exhibitions at tertiary institutions hosted by the department of Social Development.
Addiction is a Chronic Disease
It is of utmost importance that addiction treatment specialists continue in their efforts to highlight the ultimate truth about addiction; that it is a chronic disease that can be successfully managed and to make treatment as accessible as possible. For those suffering from addiction and mental health disorders, it is important to find a treatment centre that offers programmes for co-occurring disorders.
By opening up the conversations around addiction and mental health, society can help to “normalise” the subjects, or at the very least, eliminate some of the effects the stigmata carry and, in time, this will encourage those who have yet to seek treatment get the help they need.
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