A Brief Commentary on Science and Stigma

Bill White recently released a new article expressing serious concern about the message of addiction as a brain disease without including information about recovery:

  1. communicating the neuroscience of addiction without simultaneously communicating the neuroscience of recovery and the prevalence of long-term recovery will increase the stigma facing individuals and families experiencing severe alcohol and other drug problems, and
  2. the longer addiction science is communicated to the public without conveying the corresponding recovery science, the greater the burden of that stigma will be.

…Campaigns that sought to reduce the stigma of mental illness by educating the public that mental illness was a brain disease inadvertently invoked perceptions that the mentally ill were less than human and invoked harsher behavior toward the mentally ill (Mehta & Farina, 1997; Corrigan & Watson, 2004). While such research has not been directly replicated in the addictions field, Crawford and colleagues (1989) did find that humanitarian attitudes toward the alcoholic (e.g., a sympathetic attitude and belief that treatment should be supported by public funds) were not directly related to whether alcoholism was or was not viewed as a disease.

The vivid brain scan images of the addicted person may make that person’s behavior more understandable, but they do not make the person whose brain is being scanned more desirable as a friend, lover, spouse, neighbor, or employee. In fact, in the public’s eye, there is short distance between the perceptual categories of brain diseased, deranged and dangerous. We should not forget that a century ago biological models of addiction provided the policy rationale for prolonged sequestration of addicted persons and their inclusion in mandatory sterilization laws (White, 1998). Further, christening addiction a CHRONIC brain disease—as I have done in innumerable presentations and publications, may, without accompanying recovery messages, inadvertently contribute to social stigma from a public that interprets “chronic” in terms of forever and hopeless (“once an addict, always an addict”)(See Brown, 1998 for an extended discussion of this danger).

Conveying that persons addicted to alcohol and drugs have a brain disease that alters emotional affect, compromises judgment, impairs memory, inhibits one’s capacity for new learning, and erodes behavioral impulse control are not communications likely to reduce the stigma attached to alcohol and other drug problems, UNLESS there are two companion communications: 1) With abstinence and proper care, addiction-induced brain impairments rapidly reverse themselves, and 2) millions of individuals have achieved complete long-term recovery from addiction and have gone on to experience healthy,
meaningful, and productive lives.