The Impacts of Stigma on Long-Term Addiction Recovery

I recently wrote about how diverse cultural and sociopolitical support drivers can have a negative impact upon recovery from addictions (see here). Another significant factor that continually prevents people from changing, achieving long-term sustained recovery and moving forward to rebuild their life is stigma!

Public opinion, political strategic direction and the too often misinformed or mischievous media machine drives stigma. A case in point is the (contrived) angst around military drugs policy that hit the papers recently.

A lot of the emotive tosh came about after The Mail published a story at the beginning of October 2018: – Army offers £10k golden hello to drug shame soldiers. – the story that followed the was only partially correct (as usual).

The article went on to describe how this “astonishing policy” would suddenly allow hundreds of cocaine and cannabis using ex-squadies to sign-up again after previous dismissal for previous drug use. Do you really think the military is going to allow platoons of men and women to run around with guns whilst off their heads on gear… Really?

The Army rightly challenged the headlines (see here) and insisted they were “completely untrue” – their zero-tolerance policy on drugs had not been relaxed, despite any tabloid suggestions. Yes, the media got hot under their collars and were still up-in-arms about the reports of young recruits who fail tests being given a second chance but, if managed and supported correctly, is that really so wrong?

If we’re to get genuinely concerned about what was mostly a contrived issue; what about all the military personnel who, like a large proportion of our civilian society, are going to work every Monday morning still processing a weekend of heavy alcohol consumption? Oh no, boozing that’s OK, it’s a socially acceptable norm, everybody does it, it’s legal. Lot’s of people have hangovers on a Monday, don’t they?

More than 40 per cent of soldiers who fail compulsory drugs tests are being allowed to remain in uniform. Now soldiers booted out over drugs are being told they can re-enlist just two years after their most recent offence. (The Mail)

This article went on to say; “MPs and anti-drug campaigners warned of a significant risk in recruiting known drug users” and that the ‘new’ policy has “caused uproar among troops past and present.” That may be so but again, I suspect most of the angst came from the holier-than-thou brigade, or those who can say; “there but for the grace of god go I.”

Discharge of the Line Brigade: Squaddies kicked out over drugs have been able to rejoin after two years, but the loophole has now been closed under the zero-tolerance policy. (The Sun)

As with the revolving door situation in our prison system, and as with any process that truly supports the rehabilitation of ‘offenders’, how can people be expected to change when they’re continually judged only by their past mistakes?

I fail to comprehend how a silly individual who used drugs in the past, and failed a compulsory drugs test at the time, should expect to be classified as a ‘drugs user’ for the rest of their life. But this is what happens constantly, irrespective of any individual changed behaviours and/or the passage of time.

Soldiers kicked out of the Army for failing drug tests will be banned from returning via £10,000 ‘golden handshake’ scheme, defence secretary says. (The Mail)

Partaking in a communal joint of juvenile bravado or, snorting a line of cocaine when pissed at a party in your teenage years, doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is a full-blown ‘addict’ several years on.But the sanctimonious self-appointed guardians of morality in our society have decided – he/she is a ‘known drug user’ – so once a crook always a crook – end of story.

Defence Secretary ‘Will Not Tolerate’ Drug Use In UK Military, Gavin Williamson said: “We are not going to be letting anyone back into the Armed Forces if they have been dismissed for taking drugs.” (

With this prevalent attitude in our society why would anyone want try to gain recovery from substance misuse issues, or even moderate their  ‘minor’ problematic drinking? Is there really a point? Won’t society continue to label these individuals as ‘addicts’ and ‘alcoholics’, irrespective of how long they have been clean and sober.

Army Chiefs Draft In Zero Tolerance Policy On Drug Use: In the previous policy, soldiers who were kicked out for illegal drug use were able to rejoin after two years – 3rd Nov 2018. (

Those who seek recovery, let alone those who reach that goal, are often denied the full benefits of that recovery journey. That in no small way, is due to the stigma of their past which is mostly created and perpetuated by our society today. Another poignant example of this stigma issue, although not connected with the Military matters highlighted above, was evidenced by the personal experiences of Shiv Sharma, a valued member of the UK SMART Recovery board of trustees.

Despite many years of lived-experience and sustained recovery and now working in the field of addictions support, Shiv was recently denied a travel visa for the USA. He had applied to for travel to the USA as part of his recovery advocacy work but no, his past still had him branded as a moral failure and worse, some sort of danger to American society… WTF?

A Recovery Stigma Case Study: Drug warrior ideologues have employed manipulative rhetoric and caricatured images of people experiencing alcohol and other drug (AOD) problems for political, professional, and financial gain. (William L. White, Emeritus Senior Research Consultant at The Lighthouse Institute)

Shiv wrote to William White, an American recovery ‘expert’ and staunch advocate for recovery in America (see here). Bill summed up the situation succinctly by saying…

The “moral turpitude” brand on people recovering from substance use disorders is a destructive anachronism that should be now and forever abandoned. If we want people who have experienced AOD problems to resolve such problems and contribute as productive citizens, then communities must remove obstacles to personal and family recovery, provide visible pathways of entrance into recovery, and create environments that enhance quality of personal and family life in long-term recovery. (William L. White)

As I’ve pointed out before, a great deal of what is wrong with addictions recovery in our country, actually finds its roots in the American initiated ‘War On Drugs’, a rhetoric that really should by now be dead and buried. Bill concluded by saying…

Removing such obstacles (including social stigma), expanding recovery space in local communities, and assuring sustained recovery support are major goals of the recovery advocacy movement. The above letter from Shiv Sharma is testimony of how much work remains to be done. (William L. White)

Bill’s book,  Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America is the product of more than 35 years of research. It documents the story of America’s personal and institutional responses to alcoholism and other addictions. It’s the story of mutual-aid societies and more recent secular mutual-aid alternatives. It also highlights the rise of the new addiction recovery advocacy movement, something that “promises to transform the future of addiction treatment and recovery” in the United States and beyond…. if only the same could be said for the attitudes of our politicians, the media and our society?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.