An Online Resource Center for Family and Friends of People Battling Drug Addiction

Breaking the Stigma

The myths and stigma associated with drug use are pervasive. Many people think that drug abuse is voluntary. They think it is just a matter of willpower, self-control or a person’s character. “Anyone can quit if they just try hard enough.” Many of us have been/are in denial about our loved one’s drug use. We often don’t recognize the severity of the disease, or maybe be we don’t even think of addiction as a disease.

I was so sure he would just grow out of it. – Madison Parent

My son didn’t choose to be an addict. No one wants to be an addict. –Madison Parent

It helped me so much to see addiction as a disease like diabetes, cancer, or heart disease rather than my parenting or my child’s character.- Dane County Parent

Addiction is a complex brain disease. It is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. Addiction is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain; they change its structure and how it works. These changes in the brain interfere with a person’s ability to think clearly, exercise good judgment, control behavior, and feel normal without using drugs. Overtime, the changes make it difficult for someone to stop using drugs (or alcohol or tobacco) despite his/her wish to do so.

Addiction is best understood as a continuum ranging from never used at one end, to addiction at the other end; with various categories of use in between.  There are clinical diagnostic criteria for determining where one lies along the “continuum of substance use”.   Some individuals may never become addicted; others will. Continued use, over time, of addictive substances, alters the structure and function of the brain, affecting judgment and behavior.

Research evidence points to risk factors for developing addiction: genetic predisposition, structural and functional brain characteristics, psychological factors and environmental influences. A particular factor that is predictive of risk is age of first use: individuals are more likely to develop the disease of addiction when they start using before the age of 21 when the brain is still developing and is more susceptible to addictive substances (National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, Columbia University, June 2012).

  • addiction often occurs with other health conditions; in particular, mental health and substance abuse conditions co-occur.
  • addiction can be a chronic disease–persistent, long-lasting illness requiring ongoing treatment and management

The following is taken from the website, Learn to Cope


  • A person can get off drugs alone.
  • Most addicts can become permanently drug-free or “cured.”


  • Research shows that it is very hard for opiate and injection drug users (IDUs) and cocaine and other users to quit on their own.
  • Relapse is common, even after treatment.
  • Many addiction problems co-occur with mental health issues, making recovery even more difficult.
  • Society has a greater understanding and acceptance of alcoholism and nicotine addiction. Little stigma is attached to relapse to smoking or alcoholism. There are more realistic expectations concerning success of treatment for smokers and alcoholics – potential for relapse after treatment is generally recognized and accepted; unlike for drug relapse.
  • Most people understand that chronic conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, cannot be “cured” – they are treated and managed to reduce potentially severe consequences. In contrast, many believe that it should be possible to permanently cure a person of drug addiction. If a “cure” doesn’t occur, then treatment is considered useless and not deserving of investment or support.
  • Research does show that comprehensive, sustained treatment can enable individuals to effectively manage drug addiction and live a productive, happy life.

Language Matters!

So that we can communicate effectively with each other as we address the drug epidemic confronting Dane County, we at the Parent Addiction Network want to clarify some terms and concepts in use.  There are a lot of terms used to describe substance use and addiction; a lack of a common language can cause confusion and perpetuate the stigma that so many of us want to dispel.  While the field of addiction continues to evolve as does its language, we provide the following based on the research and best practice to date.   (Coming soon – please check back!)



DrugFacts: Understanding Drug Abuse and Addiction, (pdf) 3 page brochure from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)

Drugs, Brains and Behavior: The science of addiction, (pdf) 36 page document from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)



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