The stigma surrounding addiction and mental illness is an unfortunate reality in our society. It can, for example, prevent individuals from getting the help and support they need. This can keep people isolated as they struggle with addiction and/or mental illness.

Combatting Stigma by Rewriting the Narrative

Coping with the stigma of addiction or mental illness is an important step on the road to recovery. It often starts with addressing the internalized stigma in the way you view yourself and your illness.

Your Addiction Isn’t a Choice

One of the first steps in overcoming stigma is recognizing that you didn’t choose this. You have an illness, like diabetes or asthma. The evidence shows that addiction and other mental health disorders are forms of brain disease.

Too often, society portrays addiction and mental illness as character flaws. Furthermore, it acts as though these flaws should be dealt with criminally or in the shadows of society. Common phrases like “junkie,” “dry drunk,” and even “clean” reinforce these negative stereotypes.

Before addressing the stigma that others feel toward you, address the stigma you feel toward yourself. Educate yourself on the science of your disorder(s) to unlearn the misinformation you have internalized.

You Are Not Your Addiction

Seeking medical treatment—through rehab or inpatient hospitalization—is a big deal. It’s easy to see this decision as putting a “scarlet letter” on you as someone with a defining deficiency. Unfortunately, it can be easy to make this deficiency your entire identity.

Remember that your illness is only one small part of who you are. You have other defining traits, gifts, goals, and history. Focus on these positives and remember that your illness does not define you.

Write Your Story

Try drafting a biography of yourself. This can show you that your conditions are not the only aspects that define who you are.

Retrace your accomplishments and the arc of your life. Portray yourself in a positive light and embrace this portrayal. If you want others to see you in a certain manner, you must first see yourself that way.

Once you’ve written your biography, look forward. Write the story you want to be told in your eulogy. This is an exercise in goal setting and creates a framework through which you can view the future. Don’t hold back—if you can recover from addiction or mental illness, you can accomplish anything. The depths of treatment will make the experience of future achievement even sweeter.

Embrace Your Story

There are two ways to approach your mental illness or addiction. You can downplay it and keep it a closely guarded secret. Depending on their life circumstances, this may work for certain people.

However, for others, their addiction or mental illness is an open secret. For these individuals, it’s best to embrace their condition as part of their outward biography with family and friends. If you embrace your story and have the courage to talk about it, you will be surprised by the level of support and respect you receive.

Unfortunately, not every social circle is supportive. However, being open with them can provide you with important information. You likely want to know if your social group is hindering your recovery.

Dealing With Stigma in Professional Life

Getting back on your feet after treatment for a mental illness or addiction is difficult. This is particularly true as it relates to the job search.

While it is advisable to embrace your story of addiction or mental illness with friends and family, it may not be advisable to do so in the context of employment. This is because the stigma is all too real in the employment environment.

If you have a resume gap, be truthful. However, you could simply say you took time off to reevaluate your life, your goals, and/or what you wanted out of your career. You may even say that you were “burnt out” and knew you wanted a position that was a better career fit.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an employer may not discriminate against someone with a mental illness or someone who has been rehabilitated from an addiction.

Despite this, the risk of stigma is still too strong to make full disclosure. Always be truthful, but know that the extent to which you choose to share your struggle is entirely up to you. If an employer asks about your disability, under the ADA, they are likely violating federal as well as state law.

Build a Support Network

Feelings of stigma will subside with a strong support network that accepts you for who you are. Alcoholics Anonymous can be a great way to jumpstart your support network. This is because it will connect you with people who can relate to the struggles you face.

Lean on friends you made in rehab as well. They’ve been through the struggle with you and know what you’re going through.

Regardless, find a support group that works for you and actively engage with it. Remember that to have a friend, you need to be a friend. The “give and take” relationships you have with others in recovery can be incredibly rewarding. 

Ending the Stigma

While the stigma of addiction and mental illness is real, there are signs it is beginning to thaw. If you watch professional football, you may have seen commercials for the “Kicking the Stigma” initiative. It is spearheaded by Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts. The goal of the initiative is to raise awareness of the fact that one in five U.S. adults has some type of mental health disorder.

Because of the extent of the addiction and mental health epidemic, someone you are talking to about your own struggles likely knows someone with a similar issue or has experienced it personally. The more people in society can be open with our stories, the less power stigma will have.

Here, at Dream Recovery, we understand that the stigma of mental illness and addiction is a reality for those who face it. That’s why we provide a range of interventions—from therapy to support groups—to help fight the feelings of stigma. If you’re feeling the stigma of your addiction or mental illness, know that your illness wasn’t a choice. Embrace your story and allow your treatment to help you heal from the physical and mental impacts of addiction and mental illness. If you are trying to cope with the stigma of your addiction or mental illness, call us at (657) 216-7218 for a stigma-free environment in which to begin the recovery journey.

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