Courtesy Stigma and Personal Witness

Recovery Rising Book Cover PaperbackThe stigma attached to addiction, addiction treatment, and even addiction recovery is extended professionally and socially to those who choose to work in the addictions arena. Erving Goffman, the premier stigma theorist, referred to this as courtesy stigma—discredit extended to families and others closely linked to people with addiction disorders. It is common for addiction counselors and recovery support specialists to encounter courtesy stigma. This can take the form of other health and human service professionals looking askance at those who would choose to work in the addictions field or in the responses of civilians when introduced to us. The phrases “I could never do that kind of work” and “it must take a special person to help THOSE people” may express the civilian’s respect for those who counsel people with addictions, but I suspect these phrases can also convey the civilian’s suspicion about the mental status of anyone who would choose such work. Such reactions are also a way for civilians to emotionally distance themselves from such problems.

Put simply, those of us who work in the addictions field elicit discomfort because of our association with these problems. Such discomfort does have its moments. I must confess a certain delight in observing the varying reactions of people at a social reception who introduce themselves to me with slightly or very slurred speech and a drink in their hand and then ask what I do for a living. Two common responses to such situations are an effort at bootlegged therapy—the whispered request for a free consultation about a family member or friend—and a defensive justification of the drink in their hand followed by rapid flight. Both the whispered consultation and the nervous exit are examples of courtesy stigma. 

Such encounters with courtesy stigma can be irritating and contribute to the professional and social closure of those working in addiction treatment. Through such closure, we progressively isolate ourselves from the larger community and associate only with each other. It took some time for me to recognize the positive potential in such professional and social encounters. And it came to me through the scientific evidence about stigma reduction. It turns out that one of the most effective ways to reduce the stigma attached to addiction, treatment, and recovery is through personal contact between citizens who have not experienced these problems and citizens who once experienced but no longer experience such problems. In short, social stigma flourishes where no contact exists between those who stigmatize and the stigmatized. Personal contact breaks down such stigma, particularly when the contact is personal, cooperative rather than competitive or conflicted, and when the encounter is a positive experience. 

What that means for us is that those who are targets of courtesy stigma, such as family members and those who work as professionals or volunteers, can also serve as antidotes to stigma. We do that through the act of witnessing—sharing our testimony about the potential and reality of long-term addiction recovery. Every such encounter should leave those we meet with a more human view of those addicted to alcohol and other drugs and more hopeful about their future. By becoming a carrier of the recovery message, you can become a stigma killer. Have you killed any stigma recently? Or are you avoiding situations where you may encounter courtesy stigma?