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Men and the Stigma of Addiction

Have you noticed the stigma that exists when it comes to men and addiction?

It is no secret that the stigma of males in relation to addiction exists in our society today. While it’s widely understood that this is a complex issue, it’s often oversimplified and overlooked.  The stigma may include anything from negative attitudes towards those who may be overindulging in addictive substances or behaviors, to critical beliefs about who specifically is affected by addiction.  The idea that men who are affected by addiction are weak, deserving of their fate and less worthy of care is so inextricably tied to our current societal views that it’s challenging to attempt the separation of addiction from shame and guilt.

male addict feeling shameMost of us who are struggling with addictive behaviors find that the stigma creates a barrier to feeling comfortable enough to seek help. The fear of being labeled an “addict” becomes confused with shame and guilt and fear that the label could follow us for life.  Males assume the gender role of being providers and are generally expected by society to be strong all the time, a role that leaves little room to ask for help. If we were able to remove the expectations, labels, guilt and shame, as they relate to addiction and the gender role of men, people may begin to trust that it is safe to ask for help from their health care providers, family or friends.

Gender expectations of men in our society outline the ideals that males are supposed to be manly, successful leaders, physically and emotionally strong, and capable of handling everything and anything.  The problem with this amount of societal pressure is that it leaves no room for full authenticity. We are human, circumstantially imperfect in our own ways but others should not shame that.  When we criticize a man for patterns of substance misuse or decision to seek help, we send the message that anything outside of perfection is a sign of weakness or even worse, failure. With a message like that who would want to admit that they want help in making a positive change?

Men are more likely than women to use almost all types of illicit drugs (SAMHSA, 2014), and illicit drug use is more likely to result in emergency department visits or overdose deaths for men than for women.  This suggests a possible correlation between presumed character weakness and not seeking help when substance use has gotten to dangerous levels. For change to begin, it is essential we start by transforming our language about male expectations as well as the notion that weakness is associated with asking for help. When we can begin to remove the labels and expectations of what one “should” or “shouldn’t” do, we may open up more healthy conversation about how we can better support one another despite any differences in gender, race, ethnicity, religion or social economic status.