Ending stigma — the first step to ending America’s addiction crisis

We know firsthand that addiction to drugs and alcohol does not discriminate.

In 2018, about 68,000 Americans died from a drug overdose, and an estimated 88,000 die from the effects of alcohol annually in our country. The estimated cost of the opioid crisis alone is $696 billion dollars annually in the United States.

From the Federal Government to State agencies, community-based social services organizations, and the criminal justice system, addiction is everyone’s problem. Yet too many people still see it as a moral failing. Professionally and personally, we know to the contrary that addiction is a chronic and progressive illness that impacts Americans from all walks of life, all races, and all faiths.

Yet private shame and public misunderstanding foster a formidable obstacle of stigma that too often prevents those struggling with addiction from seeking help. Research shows that only 10 percent of people who struggle with this illness are getting treatment at a given time. Too often these people are either too afraid to ask for help, or do not know where or how to turn for help. The consequences can be life-threatening.

The word stigma is a Latin derivative from the ancient Greek word for “branding” or a “mark of disgrace.” Today, stigma has come to describe a judgmental attitude that discounts the intrinsic value that all human beings inherently possess. Stigma is a barrier that is socially-constructed, based in fear, and accompanied by inaccurate information.

When a person who is trying to turn their life around is judged, it cuts at the very nature of one’s being. This instills further feelings of inferiority, and ultimately, they can be left feeling unloved. By creating this additional obstacle, we impede the progress that we should be praying for them to achieve.

There is a very simple start to breaking down the stigma of the disease of addiction. The simple solution is to talk. All of us sharing our stories about how addiction or recovery has impacted our lives or someone close to us.

It is also critical that society does not falsely assume that an individual with the disease of addiction cannot recover. Addiction can be overcome, and people in long-term recovery continue to prove this fact every day. Evidence demonstrates that treatment works and that recovery is achievable for all Americans who assume the personal responsibility to meet these challenges head on.

For those still trapped in addiction, please know you already possess the courage to ask for help despite any and all negative judgments. Please grasp the opportunity to prove doubters wrong by creating triumph out of personal tragedy.

Our belief in the human condition is why we will continue to play an active role in supporting Federal, State, local resources and other stakeholder associations to make the dream of lasting recovery a reality. As in North Dakota and all across America, our story is one of eternal hope. It is our vision that stigma will be eliminated just like it has been for other diseases, and more people will thrive in recovery. If you, yourself, are ready to take the first step to recovery, visit FindTreatment.gov and get the help you need.

As we begin the New Year with new resolutions, let us remember that we have the opportunity to help those who are suffering to build character, find love, and to reunite with their families. We can all be a vital part of the solution to end the stigma of addiction.

Informally known as the “U.S. Drug Czar,” Jim Carroll serves as the Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Kathryn Burgum serves as First Lady of North Dakota and is in recovery for over 17 years from addiction to alcohol.


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