Lucy Nichol shines a light on the impact of addiction stigma and meets two men on the road to recovery.

the devastating impact of addiction stigma

Addiction is one of the most highly stigmatised of mental health problems

New research carried out by insight agencies NGI Solutions and Qu Mind has found that 1 in 3 people believe addicts are to blame for their addiction, and over a third of respondents stated they were unwilling or unsure if they would remain friends with somebody experiencing addiction.

This research comes at a time when we’ve seen record numbers of drugs deaths across the UK.

Kathie Wilcox, director of NGI Solutions, said, “Having carried out campaign work on behalf of clients and partners in the mental health space, including Newcastle United Foundation and The Road to Recovery Trust, we were keen to use our research expertise to discover whether there were any particular issues around stigma across the UK.

“While we were sadly not surprised that addiction was one of the most highly stigmatised of mental health problems, we knew that the research would be helpful for partner organisations looking to make the case for more addiction service support.

“These results demonstrate that there is clearly a lack of understanding.”

If the research demonstrates a lack of understanding, what is the reality?

Two men who have experienced addiction problems explain why addiction is never a choice.

Chris’ story

Chris, a PR director based in London, has nearly ten years of recovery from alcoholism under his belt.

“My addiction centred around alcohol. The unhealthy relationship with it started when I was old enough to drink and could never manage my intake – and continued throughout my 20s especially in environments where drinking is ‘cultural’ and embedded (running record shops, working in pubs, being at university).

“Life events such as an unexpected bereavement a fortnight prior to my 21st birthday also fuelled the problem.

“The lowest point was while working for a music festival which went bust, leaving me thousands of pounds out of pocket, living off cash only, and using drink as the means to sleep. Naturally, this led to some major mental health problems.

“Self-esteem issues and unaddressed personal and psychological issues made my drinking a constant, to the extent I developed alcohol-induced epilepsy aged 28 – a development which didn’t stop me drinking, despite being a warning sign of the highest magnitude.

“Addiction stigma undoubtedly stopped me asking for help as I thought I was stupid, bad, unable to cope with life.

“If I’d known it was okay to be ill (and that is what alcoholism is), I’d have recognised it sooner and addressed it.

“I worried I’d be seen a failure by confronting it. I also worried about the reaction I’d receive. Would I lose my job? And who would date an alcoholic?

“Even in recovery it’s still an issue – although in recent years I’ve seen an increase in the number of people who say, ‘Wow, well done. That’s amazing.’

“But people still sometimes don’t know how to react. It can be awkward – which is frustrating for my recovery as it’s something I’m incredibly proud of each and every day.”

Addressing the stigma associated with addiction Men's Fitness UK

Addiction is never a choice

Alan’s story

Alan is 12 years in recovery from drugs and alcohol.

“I had issues with addiction from about the age of 16 following a traumatic childhood that saw me and my mum living in a women’s refuge for a period of time.

“Daily drug use quickly took over every part of my personality and life. For a long time, no matter the consequences, I refused to accept they were probably related to my drug use.

“I got to the point where I was unable to look after myself, I didn’t really wash or eat. I couldn’t maintain a relationship or a job.

“One by one everything and everyone left until I was alone, suicidal and self-harming.

“Within the space of a few months my girlfriend left, my flat mate stabbed his mum to death, a girl overdosed and died on my front room floor and a guy I grew up with hung himself.

“I just couldn’t pretend anymore that the life I was living was the life I wanted and that my drug use wasn’t to blame.

“However, I knew I had a drug problem about eight years before I accessed any proper help.

“I was cloaked in embarrassment and shame about what people would think. And the stigma is very real. It’s stopped me getting jobs, and there were people I went on dates with who, once I told them I didn’t drink (they inevitably then ask why) weren’t interested in a second date.

“I know lots of people who have been scared to let people around them (from family members to co-workers) know they are struggling with addiction.

“Recovery can be tough and the support of those around you can make so much difference.

“No one chooses to be addicted – it’s an illness. And people who are addicted should be treated the same way as any other sick person.”

Addressing the stigma around addiction Men's Fitness UK

The Road to Recovery Trust’s George Street Social creates a safe and supportive environment for people in recovery from addiction

Addiction services

Aside from challenging perceptions through awareness campaigns such as Action on Addiction’s Addiction Awareness Week, and of course having the research to back up the need for such campaigns, support services need to be prioritised and re-designed to meet the needs of the many people struggling with addiction.

Sadly, many drug and alcohol services have been drastically cut, and drugs deaths are on the rise.

Peter Mitchell, chief executive of Newcastle’s Road to Recovery Trust is himself in recovery from alcoholism.

The trust runs a recovery café – George Street Social – which has been designed as a safe space for people in recovery as well as the wider community.

Mitchell says, “Alcoholism and drug addiction are both isolating diseases that in many cases are linked to the shocking number of young people ending their own lives in this country.

“It has to be remembered that stigma is probably the biggest barrier to recovery from addiction.

“Recovery communities are key in this respect to provide support and friendship to the many people who are feeling ashamed and isolated. And embedding services within this kind of social community, as we do at George Street Social, provides a holistic approach in terms of social, peer and professional support opportunities all under one roof.

“Presently, addiction is more often treated as a social issue through local authorities and their rapidly decreasing budgets, as opposed to being seen as a health issue alongside other mental health problems. This creates a challenge as people with addictions are most often experiencing other mental health problems simultaneously, and yet they find themselves being pushed from pillar to post rather than being treated as a human being with a range of complex problems.

“People shouldn’t feel ashamed. And in my opinion, recovery should be considered a tremendous achievement worthy of inclusion on any CV.”

Where to get help for addiction

12-step recovery programmes such as Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous are free and take place across the country. To find out more, visit the Road to Recovery Trust’s 12-step contact page.

The Talk to Frank service provides information about drugs, and advice for drug users, parents and carers.

To join a supportive online community, visit Secret Drug Addict’s Facebook page.

To access all the research headlines from the survey, visit