Challenging the stigma around alcohol

It's time to challenge stigma by talking openly about the issues surrounding alcohol.

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Dependent drinkers and their families are often victims of stigma, whereby they are negatively judged, devalued and excluded. This stigma can come from the way harmful drinking is talked about in the media or by friends and colleagues, or even relatives.

It is often hard to avoid such stigmatisation, and the consequences can be damaging for both the drinker and their loved ones.

Stigma and alcohol dependence

Stigma happens when we project stereotypes (negative beliefs about a group of people) and prejudice (negative emotional reactions towards a group of people) in a discriminatory way.

Typical stereotypes of people experiencing alcohol dependence are that they are unreliable, emotionally unstable, financially dependent on others, self-pitying, and incapable of changing their behaviour. Negative emotional reactions include quite blatant prejudice, such as fear, anger and distrust, to more subtle forms of prejudice like indifference.

People who are alcohol dependent are consequently sometimes victims of discrimination, like being actively ignored or avoided, or dehumanised in some other way, even when seeking help. One treatment service worker told researchers that a plan to site a pub on a street is likely to provoke less concern from local residents than a proposal for a new alcohol treatment centre.

A barrier to treatment

Whilst there has been limited UK research, one major study in the USA found that people with alcohol dependency were more than 60% less likely to seek treatment if they believed they would be stigmatised once their status was known.

Alcohol Concern’s (our predecessor organisation) snapshot survey of shoppers in Cardiff, Wales, found that many people felt that seeking help for a drink problem could be personally and socially difficult: around 30% of respondents cited shame or embarrassment as reasons why people might not seek help.

A dependent drinker’s own feelings of shame, guilt and low self-esteem - often driven by public stigma - whilst on one level might provide an individual with a motivation to change, typically are so overwhelming as to only serve to propel that person further into dependency. Therefore, how an individual responds to and/or challenges other people’s perception of their dependency can be a critical factor in their own recovery.

The impact on families

Family members of people who drink harmfully often find themselves stigmatised by their loved one’s drinking. This can dramatically alter their day-to-day lives:

  • social invitations can dry up
  • children may be targeted by bullies
  • friends and family may become less trusting around money
  • work colleagues might make inappropriate comments.

Much like a person with alcohol dependence, family members can experience feelings of guilt and self-blame, particularly parents who believe that the upbringing they provided is responsible for the alcohol problems. Family members can also struggle to express themselves regarding their loved one’s drinking due to the fear of stigma and a concern that they won’t be properly understood. They may feel abandoned by their friends and relations, and consequently develop feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Challenging stigma

One way to help combat stigma may be to talk openly about the issues surrounding alcohol. However, this may depend on how we discuss them. Thinking about the language we use is important, and avoiding terms that label or blame people. When we hear personal stories about those who experience problems, and understand the reasons behind them, we are more likely to feel compassion and want to help or support them. If you are worried about your drinking or that of someone you know, you should talk to someone in confidence about it, like your GP.

Stigma can, and often should, be challenged. Talking openly about alcohol may help to breakdown stereotypes and lead to more empathy and less discrimination. In turn, this will help everyone - friends, employers, colleagues and neighbours - in supporting those who may be struggling with alcohol problems is surely the best approach.

One way to help combat stigma is to talk openly, without judgement, about the issues surrounding alcohol.

If you are worried about your own or someone else's drinking, contact your GP for confidential advice. You can also get in touch with Drinkline on 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am to 8pm, weekends 11am to 4pm), or local alcohol treatment services directly to arrange a meeting. Check on the NHS website for more information on where to find support, or speak to your GP.

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