Since 1987, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence has run a public health program in April known as Alcohol Awareness Month. The program has focused on different issues regarding alcohol consumption over the years, including its use among teenagers. Most recently, organizers have used the month to discuss the causes and effects of unhealthy alcohol use, as well as how to help families and communities deal with drinking problems.
Sojourner House is very familiar with the impact of alcohol abuse on individuals and families. According to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 28.6 million adults ages 18 and older had Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) in the past year.
This Alcohol Awareness Month, we’re focused on two key things that all community members can do about this health issue: talk about it, and understand the stigma against it.
Understanding the Stigma Behind Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)
All substance use is stigmatized to varying degrees, and Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) – sometimes referred to as alcohol misuse – is no exception.
Alcohol Change UK says it best: “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.”
Unfortunately stigma against substance usage, including AUD specifically, increases the chances of a suffering individual being unable to access medical care. The negative connotations associated with the illness lead patients to feeling ashamed or embarrassed for struggling with the disorder at all. Those negative emotions in turn prevent many people in crisis from asking for help, due to discomfort or to the fear of how others will react to their struggle.
We all as community members and partners have a responsibility to recognize that this stigma exists. And once we know about it, we can use that knowledge to better discuss it.
The Importance of Discussing Alcohol Misuse
Alcohol Awareness Month provides an opportunity to combat the stigma associated with alcohol misuse. In addition to speaking openly about AUD, community members are encouraged to explore the terminology currently recommended by medical professionals.
In our team’s experience, language is a powerful tool for framing discussions about substance abuse. For example, you’ll note that we have avoided using the word “alcoholism” in this blog post. This is because, as noted by the National Institutes of Health, compulsive substance use is a complex brain disorder. Outdated language, including alcoholism, does not convey this complexity, and carries negative ideals that invite a value judgment.
Discussing the stigma behind AUD is one important topic to touch on, but there are many other subjects to explore when addressing alcohol misuse. For example, alcohol consumption is so prevalent in American culture that it’s easy for individuals to not realize, or outright deny, they are engaging in an unhealthy behavior. This lack of understanding or denial can look like:
- underestimating the amount of alcohol being consumed
- total time spent drinking
- not seeing the impact alcohol misuse has had on their life
- overestimating their ability to control their drinking or to quit
Knowing how to discuss these issues and concerns is a powerful tool for all community members year-round – and Alcohol Awareness Month allows us to better prepare for those difficult conversations.
Supporting Those In Recovery
While Alcohol Awareness Month only lasts for a handful of weeks annually, there is plenty of work that can be done to address AUD year-round. Learning about stigmatizing language to avoid, as well as engaging in hard conversations with those you have concerns for, are both incredibly important actions you can take to help guide people in the right direction.
Sojourner House’s hope is that someday, all of us will understand that substance abuse is a health condition. All people struggling with this condition should receive help and support, not judgment. We hope you will join us to support families in recovery from substance use this month and in the months ahead.