The stigma of addiction costs lives.
But improved public awareness of the scientific realities of addiction can powerfully save lives - by encouraging people with alcohol and other drug problems to seek help early in the progression of their illness, when it is most treatable. The fear of being labeled as an addict, fired from a job, denied insurance or ousted from a home keeps thousands of addicted people from coming forward.
"At one point, we had the stigma of leprosy," recalls Dr. Nora Volkow of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Nobody spoke about leprosy. We had a stigma of cancer at one point. There's still a significant stigma with some of the mental diseases, but much less so than there used to be. But the one that's lagging behind is addiction."
Advocates such as those who participate in the national organization Faces & Voices of Recovery believe that public education about addiction will diminish the stigma, improve public policies and save lives. They have mounted creative campaigns to erase myths and stereotypes and to raise awareness about the realities of addiction and recovery. Improved awareness, they argue, will lead to improved public policy that can make treatment more widely accessible.
These and other campaigns teach people that addiction is an illness, not a moral failing. It helps them to understand that addiction touches folks in every community of the United States, and that it does not limit itself to people who somehow have "gone astray." Finally, the prevailing sense of helplessness in the face of addiction can be dispelled when more of the public sees that millions of people who have addictions have been successfully treated and now lead healthy and productive lives.
"Recovery is one of the best kept secrets in the country," says Texas recovery advocate Joe Powell, a leader of Faces & Voices and head of a recovery center. "Most people don't know who's in recovery. And we gotta speak loud about that."