Many people may feel reluctant to open up to their friends and loved ones about their addiction. Opening up about your problems can be difficult at the best of times but can be even harder when there is a stigma associated with your problem.
But why do people with alcohol use disorder experience stigma? And what exactly is the stigma around alcoholism?
That’s what we’re going to explore on this page. Read on to learn more about the stigma around alcoholism – including why there is a stigma, how stigma can be harmful, and how to break the stigma around alcohol use disorder.
We’ll also be going into detail about how to get help for alcohol addiction, and what alcohol addiction treatment usually entails.
Alcohol use disorder is a medical term used to describe different conditions associated with excessive alcohol use. Alcohol use disorders can vary in severity, ranging from mild to moderate to severe.
Alcohol abuse is considered to be a milder form of alcohol use disorder (AUD for short), and alcohol dependence is on the severe end of the spectrum.
AUD involves the lack of control over alcohol consumption. The term is used by medical professionals instead of terms such as ‘alcoholic’ or ‘alcohol’, as these terms could contribute to negative stigma.
There are many negative consequences of AUD, including physical health issues, financial difficulty, and mental health problems.
Read on to learn more about alcohol dependence and excessive alcohol use, including binge drinking.
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Alcohol dependence is a chronic and relapsing brain disorder, characterised by the lack of control over drinking. For example, someone dependent on alcohol may drink excessively, struggle to stop drinking once they start, or drink at inappropriate times (for example, in the morning or at work).
Also known as alcohol addiction, someone with alcohol dependence will experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking or lower the amount of alcohol their body is used to.
It can impact all areas of somebody’s life – including their relationships, work life, finances, and of course, physical health and mental health. It impacts millions of people around the world, with over 700,000 people dependent on alcohol in England.
Alcohol addiction can impact your health in various ways – it’s a causal factor in over 60 medical health conditions, and is a known carcinogen. In fact, The National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens states that alcohol consumption can increase the risk of developing several cancers.
Alcohol addiction has also been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Check out this page to further explore the links between Alzheimer’s and alcohol.
Alcohol abuse is considered a dangerous or harmful drinking pattern. Typically, it involves drinking an excessive amount of alcohol to the extent that it causes physical health problems, along with other negative consequences.
Alcohol misuse can also involve binge drinking. Binge drinking is when you drink a dangerous amount of alcohol in a short space of time. This is why the NHS guidelines on alcohol consumption suggest you drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week, spread over three or more days.
For reference, 14 units are roughly the same as six medium glasses of wine or six small measures of vodka and coke.
Alcohol abuse can lead to alcohol poisoning, which should be considered a medical emergency. Alcohol poisoning occurs when your blood alcohol levels reach a critical level and can be fatal.
No level of drinking is considered completely safe – however, drinking mindfully and not exceeding 14 units of alcohol per week can lower the risk of certain health complications, and lower the risk of becoming dependent on alcohol.
If you are struggling with alcohol abuse, contact our team at Help4Addiction today to discuss the treatment options available to you.
There are many links between alcohol and mental health. For example, people with a mental health disorder such as depression, schizophrenia or anxiety may be more likely to drink alcohol to temporarily ease the negative symptoms – and likewise, excessive alcohol consumption can increase the risk of developing mental health problems, or worsen existing mental health disorders.
Those that are in contact with mental health services and have a history of alcohol problems may be at an increased risk of suicide.
Between 2007 and 2017, there were close to 6,000 suicides amongst mental health patients with a history of AUD. This equates to around 10% of all suicide deaths in England.
Dual diagnosis is when a person has mental health conditions as well as AUD. There are current policies in place that can help to manage patients with alcohol and drug misuse and mental health conditions, which has reduced suicide rates in patients by 25%.
Public attitudes towards those with substance use disorders can vary. However, there is a common preconception that ‘alcoholics’ are either homeless, lazy, unable to hold down a job, always drunk, or ‘broke’. Some people also see those with AUD as having moral weakness, or lack of character strength.
Another inaccurate perception of people with AUD is that they are self-pitying, emotionally unstable, or unreliable. Some people also believe that people with an addiction to alcohol will always be this way and that they are incapable of change.
However, the reality is different – only a small fraction of people with alcohol use disorder fit this profile. Many people with alcohol use problems are considered high functioning.
This means that they appear to remain successful in their lives but continue to struggle with substance use, or struggle to control their alcohol consumption. They may not drink all day but may drink dangerous amounts of alcohol in a short space of time.
Generally, those who consider themselves ‘high functioning alcoholics’ tend to be more concerned about the stigma. For example, they may be worried about those in their local community gossiping or seeing them in a different light.
In comparison to other substance-unrelated mental illnesses or disorders, those who are dependent on alcohol aren’t regarded as ‘mentally ill’ as much – instead, being held responsible for their illness. This can put them at risk of discrimination.
Likewise, many people with alcohol use issues can change their behaviour with the right support and treatment. An ‘alcoholic’ can live a sober life and break the physical and mental addiction.
This is something we can help with at Help4Addiction. To learn more about alcohol addiction treatment, see the ‘Help For Alcoholism’ section of this page.
There’s no denying that there is an alcohol-related stigma – but why? Especially as drinking is a huge part of the culture in many western countries such as England, Scotland and Wales.
Likewise, the transition from casual drinker to ‘alcoholic’ can occur rather quickly, and people may not notice until the symptoms become more severe. One of the reasons for this could be denial – many people don’t wish to face up to their alcohol problem.
Alcoholism is an illness, and although somebody may make choices (for example, alcohol misuse) that can result in alcoholism, nobody chooses to develop an alcohol use disorder.
This could be similar to blaming somebody for developing diabetes – nobody makes a conscious choice to develop diabetes, and nobody makes a conscious decision to develop AUD.
However, outsiders tend to blame people for their addiction. Often, people with alcohol use disorders and other substance use disorders are considered to be more responsible for their addiction than people with mental illnesses or psychiatric disorders are for their problems.
This belief and blame can influence certain attitudes towards AUD and substance use disorders – and can even affect public funding for alcohol treatment services.
Another contributing factor to the stigma of alcoholism is people believe that alcoholism could portray a lack of willpower – and some people believe that those who drink too much lack self-control and make a conscious choice to drink too much alcohol.
This can lead people to believe that people with alcohol addiction are bad people, instead of people that have an illness.
Cultural differences could also play a part in the stigma. If you were brought up in a culture where drinking isn’t socially acceptable, or you don’t know many people that drink alcohol, you may automatically see somebody that drinks too much alcohol in a bad light.
Generally, the key causes of stigma include a lack of education or awareness and fear. For example, a person may fear somebody with AUD – they could see them as unpredictable or even dangerous.
These preconceptions only increase the stigma, which can make it harder for people with AUD to seek treatment or open up about their problems.
People who are dependent on alcohol may experience prejudice (for example, anger, fear, distrust, and many more).
They may also experience discrimination – for example, many people fear that friends and family members may avoid them if they opened up about their addiction, or are scared that doctors or nurses may see them in a negative light.
Being severely stigmatised can provoke negative emotional reactions, which can take its toll on a person’s mental health and overall well-being.
They may begin to see themselves as the way they think others see them, which can impact a person’s self-esteem and feelings of self-worth, and contribute to feelings of guilt or shame.
Stigma doesn’t always affect the person with the addiction – it can have an impact on the person’s friends and family too. This can prevent them from getting their loved ones the help they need, or stop them from seeking support themselves. You can read more about how alcoholism affects families here.
Communities can also be affected by stigma – for example, an area with high rates of substance abuse can face stigma. It doesn’t just impact an individual, but can affect a whole community.
Whether substance abuse is actually higher in a certain community, or it’s just thought to be higher, the whole community can quickly become defined by substance use. This can leave residents feeling isolated or cut off from the rest of society.
Ultimately, the negative stigma associated with alcohol use can prevent somebody with an alcohol problem to seek the help they need, or open up about it to others. This means that they may continue to drink alcohol and their alcohol use will progress, further impacting their lives.
Many people don’t receive treatment because it can cause neighbours or those in the community to have a negative opinion, or it can impact their job.
We must break and challenge the stigma regarding alcoholism – breaking the stigma of alcoholism can encourage those who need help to seek treatment, and to open up to others about their struggles and experiences.
Something that appears to be helping to break the stigma of alcoholism is celebrities and public figures opening up about their problems. In recent times, the general public seems to be more informed about alcoholism – and one of the reasons for this could be due to the representation of the problem on TV, social media, and online.
Accurate and positive representation of those with alcohol addiction can change the public stigma associated with excessive alcohol use and addiction.
There are many ways that you can help to break the stigma. For example, the words you use to describe certain alcohol-related problems and those who are impacted by these issues can perpetuate stigma.
Instead of using offensive or harmful language, use non-pejorative language with a person-first approach.
Instead of saying ‘recovering alcoholic’, say ‘person recovering from alcohol use disorder’. This is an example of a person-first term – it highlights the person instead of the illness.
As previously mentioned, medical healthcare professionals have begun to avoid using terms such as ‘alcoholic’ or ‘addicted’ – instead, using the umbrella term ‘alcohol use disorder’ or ‘alcohol use disorders’ to describe alcohol-related problems such as alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence.
The stigma appears to be far worse for those who are in active addiction or that haven’t received treatment yet as opposed to those who are in recovery. One of the key reasons for this is that the person’s life will continue to get worse until they do accept their problem and get help.
Some terms that can be considered harmful include ‘addict’ or ‘alcoholic’ – as they have negative connotations. Instead of using this term, you could say ‘person with alcohol use disorder’ or ‘person with alcohol use problems’.
Likewise, the word ‘clean’ can be harmful, as it suggests that the opposite is ‘dirty’. Instead of saying somebody in recovery is clean, you could say that they are sober, aren’t in active addiction, or have stopped drinking alcohol or taking drugs.
The word ‘junkie’ can also be very damaging and can contribute to the stigma associated with drug addiction. Instead of referring to somebody as a junkie, simply say they have a substance use disorder or drug addiction.
The negative stigma that still exists around alcohol abuse and alcohol use disorder shouldn’t stop you from seeking the treatment you deserve.
Nobody should have to deal with addiction alone, which is why our team will listen to your preferences and requirements to find the right treatment program for you – where you receive not only medical support, but mental and social support too.
At Help4Addiction, we can also find the best treatment if you have a drug addiction. We have connections with drug and alcohol rehab centres across England and Wales and can find the best centre for you.
Typically, treatment for alcoholism begins with a detox. Detoxification focuses on the physical aspect of addiction. During alcohol detoxification, all access to alcohol will be cut off to free your body of the active substance.
The next stage of alcohol addiction treatment involves therapy. Therapy isn’t just for those with a mental illness/ mental health condition – it can be extremely beneficial for those who want to recover from addiction too.
When somebody has an existing mental health disorder, (e.g obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders or other mental disorders) and addiction, this is called dual diagnosis – and it’s important that a person with a dual diagnosis receives appropriate care. This is the case even with substance-unrelated mental disorders.
The therapy options available can vary from clinic to clinic, although most rehab centres offer at least two of the following options:
Addiction therapy can benefit you in numerous ways – not only can it strengthen your confidence and overall mental health, but it can teach you effective and valuable coping strategies. It can also teach you more about yourself, how your mind works, and your addiction triggers.
Depending on the severity of your addiction, you may experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking alcohol.
The support you receive doesn’t have to end once you complete detox and therapy, or leave the rehab clinic. Secondary treatment, also known as aftercare, can be extremely helpful during early recovery, and be continued along your recovery journey.
Whether you choose to attend support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, or meet others in recovery cafes, receiving support while you are in recovery is essential. Aftercare can ease the transition from rehab to your regular life, and ultimately help to prevent relapse.
Contact us today to learn more about the admissions process, or to simply learn more about the treatment options available to you.
Nicholas Conn is a leading industry addiction expert who runs the UK’s largest addiction advisory service and is regularly featured in the national press, radio and TV. He is the founder and CEO of a drug and alcohol rehab center called Help4addiction, which was founded in 2015. He has been clean himself since 2009 and has worked in the Addiction and Rehab Industry for over a decade. Nick is dedicated to helping others recover and get treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. In 2013, he released a book ‘The Thin White’ line that is available on Amazon.
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