The Stigma of Addiction & Mental Illness in Canada

We like to think of our country as an open-minded, forward-thinking, and inclusive place – but why, then, are we still so quick to judge those struggling with addiction and mental illness?

We defend our inaction and indifference by arguing that addiction is a choice or that mental illness is an illusion.

This attitude and unwillingness to educate or understand is not helping us, those who are struggling, or society in general. In fact, these stigmas have the potential to cause real harm to those who are labeled under them, damaging their self-esteem, their relationships, and, more than anything, their health and safety. On an even bigger scale, these stigmas often lead to discrimination and exclusion.

For a group of people to be targeted based on assumptions and generalizations is not right. It is more than past time that we eliminate the negative stigma surrounding addiction and mental illness and recognize them for what they are: diseases.

Step 1: Educating Ourselves

There are multiple reasons why there are such powerful stigmas surrounding addiction and mental illness.

For starters, society is widely undereducated on the two, with many people having little or no exposure to the realities of them. Additionally, the little pieces of exposure we do encounter, typically through the media, are most often paired with negative connotations – addicts are always the bad guys, mental illness is always the butt of the joke – it’s no surprise we view them as such in real life as well.

The only way to truly transform someone’s perspective is to provide them with the tools necessary to understand the subject from a different point of view. For that reason, we are going to share with you some facts explaining how the two are, in fact, serious health issues.

How is Addiction a Disease?

Addiction may begin, in a sense, with a choice – the choice to pick up a substance for the first time – but in fact, one of the reasons addiction develops is because the brain’s high-level controls are not functioning properly.

Our brain’s high-level controls are meant to tell us when something is harmful to us, even if it seems pleasurable or rewarding – but that is not always the case. Some individuals may be, unfortunately, predisposed to substance use disorder for a variety of reasons, and others may have had traumatic experiences that can alter the effectiveness with which those controls function.

When looking at it from this perspective, can you still really call it a choice?

How is Mental Illness a Disease?

Because we cannot physically see mental illness and because there are no blood tests or brain scans that can clearly define it, many people choose not to accept that it is something that can be considered a medical issue.

However, just because something is difficult to prove or complicated to understand, that does not mean that it does not exist.

In fact, medical professionals are making more and more progress everyday collecting evidence to support the fact that mental illness does, indeed, have biological origins, as do any other medical diseases.

Eliminating the Stigma

Each person who learns more about what addiction and mental illness truly are, how they affect people, and what they are caused by, is one less person contributing to the generalizations, assumptions, and jokes which make up the stigma.

We need to come together as communities, locally and globally, and work to educate and inform our friends, neighbours, colleagues, etc.

All it takes is small steps. Refrain from using the terms “addict” or referring to those with mental illnesses as “crazy” or “retarded” – labels do nothing but hurt and isolate people. Speak up the next time you hear someone bullying someone because of their addiction or mental illness, making a joke about such things, or spreading false facts.

Help People Heal

Rather than treating those with addiction or mental illness as problems, we need to treat them as patients.

When we work together to break down the barriers of ignorance and closed-mindedness, what we are truly doing is showing individuals with these illnesses that we care about them and that we want to help them heal.

As the stigma dissipates, we can only hope that treatment, such as rehabilitation programs, medications, etc. will become more accessible, more acceptable, and more affordable.

There are many times when we, as Canadians, have proven that we can come together as a country and a community to support one another and accept one another – so let’s come together now, once again, and end the stigma surrounding addiction and mental illness once and for all.



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