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Stigma of Alcoholism

When we talk about stigma, we are referring broadly to certain attitudes and beliefs toward people—beliefs that may not be entirely accurate.

Navigation: Is Alcoholism a Medical Condition?, Alcohol Use Disorder: What Constitutes Alcohol Misuse?, Reducing the Stigma of Alcoholism: Should We Stop Saying the Word ‘Alcoholic’?, Why is There Still Stigma Surrounding Alcoholism?, How Does Alcoholism Stigma Affect People?, How to Properly Talk About Alcoholism, Fighting the Stigma of Alcoholism, Rehab is Your Best Chance


For a long time, the term “alcoholic” has been used to refer to those who have drinking problems. Even today, this word is still used by people in the media as well as in different communities. Chances are, you have used it yourself.

But recently, there has been a movement to stop using this word to refer to people with an alcohol use disorder.

Alcohol related problems are already hard enough to deal with. But also facing the stigma that comes with having this condition only prevents people from seeking the help that they need. When we talk about stigma, we are referring broadly to certain attitudes and beliefs toward people—beliefs that may not be entirely accurate.

So while the term “alcoholic” may describe people a certain way, it may also promote the stigma against them. Instead of stigmatizing language, addiction experts recommend using person-first language to help fight the stigma for addiction.

We all know the phrase: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”. But contrary to what this phrase suggests, words matter. Some words can be used to promote stigma, and that stigma serves as yet another obstacle towards the addiction recovery process.

Research has shown that the language we use to refer to people can impact the way we treat them. One study by Goodyear et al. (2018) showed that participants who were tasked to read descriptions of addicted individuals had more stigmatizing attitudes towards people who were described as “drug addicts” than individuals who were labeled as having an “opioid use disorder”.

It’s easy to see how stigmatizing language can affect interactions in the real world, especially towards people with actual substance use disorders.


Is Alcoholism a Medical Condition?

One of the main reasons why alcohol use disorder (AUD) should not be stigmatized is the fact that it is a medical condition.

Also known as alcoholism, alcohol use disorder is generally considered to be a medical condition, as it involves a physical dependence on alcohol. Just like opioid use disorder, it can have significant health consequences.

Alcoholism is characterized by compulsive alcohol consumption. An addicted individual has no control over their alcohol intake. They will keep drinking even when they are already suffering from alcohol associated pancreatitis and other alcohol-related health conditions.

There are numerous alcohol-related health problems that can arise from excessive or chronic drinking. Some examples include:

Alcohol-associated liver disease: Heavy alcohol use can lead to various forms of liver damage, such as fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, and cirrhosis.

Cardiovascular disease: Long-term heavy drinking can increase the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease.

Cancer: Chronic alcohol use has been linked to an increased risk of certain types of cancer, including liver, breast, and colon cancer.

Pancreatitis: Chronic alcohol use can lead to inflammation of the pancreas, which can cause severe abdominal pain and potentially life-threatening complications.

Mental health problems: Alcohol abuse can increase the risk of depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.

Neurological problems: Long-term alcohol use can lead to nerve damage, brain shrinkage, and cognitive impairment.

Gastrointestinal problems: Alcohol abuse can cause inflammation and damage to the digestive system, leading to issues such as gastritis, ulcers, and gastrointestinal bleeding.

It is considered a chronic and progressive disease that can result in physical and psychological damage. AUD can also increase the risk of other health problems, such as alcoholic liver disease, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. As such, it is typically treated by medical professionals using a range of interventions, including medication, therapy, and support groups.

Having an alcohol use disorder is not a moral failing. It may start with substance abuse, but it is way more complicated than that. There are plenty of factors involved other than alcohol abuse. There are genetic factors, environmental factors, and other things like peer pressure, mental illness, co-occurring disorders, etc. All of these can contribute to the development of alcohol use disorder.

People do not choose to become addicted to harmful substances, even if it appears that way. But in order to recover from this condition, alcoholism treatment is necessary.


Alcohol Use Disorder: What Constitutes Alcohol Misuse?

When discussing alcohol-related issues, it is important to understand what the condition is and how it affects an individual.

Alcohol use disorder is a broad term that encompasses a range of symptoms, from mild to severe. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic brain disease characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite the negative consequences it may cause.

It can be diagnosed when a person experiences two or more of the following criteria within a 12-month period:

Alcohol is often consumed in larger amounts or over a longer period than intended.

There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control alcohol use.

A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain alcohol, use alcohol, or recover from its effects.

Craving, or a strong desire or urge to use alcohol.

Recurrent alcohol use resulting in failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home.

Continued alcohol use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of alcohol.

Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of alcohol use.

Recurrent alcohol use in situations in which it is physically hazardous.

Alcohol use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by alcohol.

AUD can be treated through a combination of medications, therapy, and support groups, similar to how you would treat opioid addiction. If you or someone you love is dealing with an AUD, seek help from a healthcare professional.

Reducing the Stigma of Alcoholism: Should We Stop Saying the Word ‘Alcoholic’?

So now that we have established that alcohol use disorder is a medical condition, we need to start addressing the stigma that is keeping people from seeking the treatment that they need to recover.

A lot of people who have an alcohol addiction or alcohol dependence experience a lot of fear, guilt, shame, and regret over their situation. When someone calls you an alcoholic, an addict, or an alcohol abuser, these emotions are fueled and it keeps you from pursuing sobriety. Going to rehab involves admitting that you have a problem and that you need help. People with alcohol use disorder are afraid of going to rehab because they do not want to be judged by the people around them.

The negative beliefs and attitudes toward people struggling with addiction are called stigma. Stigma can severely affect people’s willingness to go to rehab and receive proper treatment. The fear of stigma is a significant obstacle towards recovery. In fact, it is one of the most common reasons people choose not to get treatment for their substance use disorders. It’s not just for alcoholism: it’s for all types of addiction.

Stigmatizing language has this same effect. People in positions of power may make decisions that are solely based on stigmatizing beliefs fueled by poor choice of words. These decisions ultimately harm people who have these medical conditions.

The use of the term “alcoholic” has been a subject of debate in the field of addiction and mental health. While some argue that the term helps to create awareness of the condition and the need for treatment, others contend that it perpetuates a negative stereotype that stigmatizes individuals struggling with alcoholism.

The use of the term “alcoholic” may lead to the assumption that the individual is inherently flawed or weak, which can create shame and discourage them from seeking help. Furthermore, the term can be limiting, as it defines the individual solely in terms of their addiction and ignores other aspects of their identity and experiences.

In an effort to reduce the stigma surrounding alcoholism, some experts advocate for using more neutral language when referring to the condition, such as “person with an alcohol use disorder” or “person in recovery from alcohol addiction.” These terms highlight the individual’s humanity and emphasize that they are more than their addiction.

While changing language alone will not solve the complex issue of alcoholism and addiction stigma, it is an important step towards creating a more compassionate and supportive environment for those who struggle with these issues. Ultimately, the focus should be on providing effective treatment and support for individuals with alcohol use disorder, rather than on labels or language.

Why is There Still Stigma Surrounding Alcoholism?

Unfortunately, just like how addiction is a complicated issue, so is stigma. There are several reasons why there is still a stigma surrounding alcoholism.

Many people view alcoholism as a sign of weakness or lack of willpower. They may view people with alcohol use disorder as being morally deficient or “bad” people, rather than individuals who are struggling with a disease.

Alcoholism is a complex medical disorder that arises from a combination of genetic, environmental, and behavioral factors. People who struggle with alcoholism are not weak or morally flawed. They are suffering from a chronic disease that requires treatment, support, and understanding.

Stigmatizing alcoholism as a moral failing only serves to perpetuate negative stereotypes and prevent people from seeking the help they need.

This usually stems from a fear of the unknown. Many people are afraid of what they don’t understand, and this can lead to stigmatization of those who struggle with alcoholism. They may be afraid of being associated with someone who has an addiction or may be fearful of the unpredictable behavior that can be associated with alcoholism.

As a result, people who struggle with alcoholism often feel a great deal of shame and guilt about their condition. They may feel like they are letting down their loved ones or that they are somehow flawed or defective. This can lead to a sense of isolation and further stigmatization.

There is still a lot of misunderstanding about alcoholism and addiction in general. Many people view it as a choice rather than a disease, and may not realize that it is a chronic and progressive condition that requires professional treatment.

How Does Alcoholism Stigma Affect People?

While at first it may seem like stigma is not such a big deal, it can actually impact many different aspects of a person’s life.

Alcoholism stigma can have significant negative impacts on individuals who struggle with alcohol addiction, as well as their families and loved ones. Delaying or preventing help is just one of these effects.  Generally speaking, people who face stigma may delay or avoid seeking treatment for alcohol addiction due to the fear of being judged or treated differently. This can lead to a worsening of their condition. It also puts them at risk of severe physical and mental health problems.

Speaking of mental health problems, stigma can contribute to feelings of shame, guilt, and low self-esteem, which can worsen mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.

When people are judged for their condition, they experience social exclusion. Individuals with alcohol addiction may be avoided or shunned by others due to negative attitudes and stereotypes.

It’s also possible for this stigma to extend into the workplace. People with alcohol addiction may face discrimination in the workplace, such as being denied employment or being fired from their job. This can contribute to financial problems.

Stigma can also affect a person’s social life, impacting their personal relationships with friends, family members, and colleagues.

Reducing alcoholism stigma and increasing awareness about the nature of addiction can help to encourage individuals to seek treatment and support, and to create a more supportive and understanding society. The first step towards this is education.

How to Properly Talk About Alcoholism

We all need to take little steps that will help fight the stigma for alcoholism. You can start by using words that describe people, not stigmatize. It’s all a matter of using person-first language.

When talking about alcoholism, we need to use words that refer to the individual before words that describe their conditions. An example would be saying “person with an AUD” instead of saying “alcoholic” or “addict”.

Using official terms and medical language that reflect the condition can also help reduce stigma. Instead of saying “drug abuse”, we can say “substance use disorder”.

These small choices can help fight stigma and even encourage people to pursue treatment for their medical condition.

Fighting the Stigma of Alcoholism

Alcoholism is a disease that affects millions of people around the world, and unfortunately, it is still heavily stigmatized in many societies. Here are some ways to fight the stigma of alcoholism:

Educate yourself and others: Learn as much as you can about alcoholism, its causes, and its effects. Share this information with others and raise awareness about the disease.

Use language that is non-judgmental: When speaking about alcoholism, avoid using language that is judgmental or stigmatizing. Instead, use language that is compassionate and respectful.

Share personal stories: If you or someone you know has struggled with alcoholism, share your story with others. Personal stories can be powerful tools for reducing stigma and increasing understanding.

Encourage treatment: If you know someone who is struggling with alcoholism, encourage them to seek treatment. Let them know that treatment is available and that there is no shame in asking for help.

Challenge stereotypes: Challenge stereotypes and negative attitudes about alcoholism when you hear them. Educate others about the reality of the disease and the challenges that people with alcoholism face.

By fighting the stigma of alcoholism, we can help create a more supportive and understanding society for those who are struggling with this disease. If you or someone you love is struggling with an alcohol use disorder or any other type of substance use disorder, it is important to seek help. Look for a rehab near you today to learn more about your treatment options. The road to long-lasting sobriety begins today.

Rehab is Your Best Chance

Treatment is an addicted individualʼs best option if they want to recover. Beating an addiction not only requires eliminating the physical dependence, but also addressing the behavioral factors that prevent them from wanting to get better. Simply quitting may not change the psychological aspect of addiction. Some people quit for a while, and then take drugs or alcohol again, only to overdose because they did not detox properly. Recovery involves changing the way the patient feels, thinks, and behaves.


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Fel Clinical Director of Content
Felisa Laboro has been working with addiction and substance abuse businesses since early 2014. She has authored and published over 1,000 articles in the space. As a result of her work, over 1,500 people have been able to find treatment. She is passionate about helping people break free from alcohol or drug addiction and living a healthy life.

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