Opioid addiction is thought of as many things, a public health crisis, a massive failing of the pharmaceutical industry, a deadly epidemic which, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, took the lives of 128 people every day in America. However, opioid addiction isn’t often talked about what it is; a mental illness.


Drug Addiction As Mental Illness

An article by the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that drug addictions, like the addiction to opiates, should be classified as mental illnesses. This classification is because substance use changes one’s brain in fundamental ways, by prioritizing a need for drugs in place of one’s standard hierarchy of needs and desires. This is to say, the way that we talk about mental illnesses like bipolar disorder and depression also needs to be the way that we talk about opioid addiction. 


Changing The Language Of Opioid Addiction

Those with mental illnesses, and especially drug addictions, face a much larger stigma and fear of being judged than those who have physical illnesses. One wouldn’t be afraid to seek treatment for a case of the flu or a broken bone. These illnesses are seen as “normal” and easily treatable. In the case of someone with a mental illness or drug addiction, however, it can feel terrifying to talk to their friends and family, or even a medical professional who could help connect them with the treatment they need to heal. This is in large part due to the language that we use to describe the mental illness that is opioid addiction. In her article Rethinking How We Talk About Addiction Dr. Nora Volkow of the NIDA argues that the terms that we use to talk about addiction often imply a sense of moral judgment and the need for criminal punishment. Dr. Volkow continues, by explaining that due to the way addiction changes the brain into a cycle of pleasure and withdrawal, it’s not an issue of mental strength, it is a medical condition, no different than any other mental illness. 



The work to lessen the stigma and change the perception of opioid addiction from criminal abuse, to mental health crisis is already being done. In September 2016, NIDA in partnership with several other federal organizations came together to institute new federal guidelines for the language of drug addiction. These guidelines seek to change the currently used terminology into language that is more consistent with the medical nature of addiction. Such language would remove stigmatized terms such as “abuser” which suggests a criminal nature. Additionally, terms like “getting clean” have been replaced with “in recovery” to further decrease the shameful or “dirty” stigma of opioid addiction.


Bringing Much Needed Change

Tackling this mental health crisis starts with changing public perception of it. By destigmatizing and having meaningful conversations about opioid addiction as a mental illness, we can provide those who are afflicted an environment in which they feel safe to seek help. Stigma can be one of the hardest things to cope with and overcoming it is a massive hurdle. The Mayo Clinic provides some excellent resources on the stigmatization of mental illnesses like opioid addiction. One of the simple techniques that they recommend is not identifying yourself with your illness. Instead of saying “I am an opioid addict,” say “I have an opioid addiction” in the way that someone with a physical illness would say that they “have” a physical affliction like a cold or a broken arm. By depersonalizing the illness, the societal blame is shifted onto the illness and not onto the person suffering from it. Other steps towards de-stigmatization include avoiding self-isolation and being vocal about your illness with those you trust. 

Ultimately, by changing the way that we talk about opioid addiction from a negative criminal perspective to an understanding, mental health-focused conversation, it’s going to become easier for those suffering from this mental health crisis to not be afraid to get the treatment that they need. Changing our perspective will help immensely in ending this epidemic once and for all. 

If you need help with opioid addiction, contact Fritz Clinic. We’re here to help you overcome your addiction and move forward. Call us or fill out our online contact form and we’ll do what we can to help you change your course properly.