Why don’t people who struggle with drug use ask for help?

Dr. Georges Petitjean

Medical Lead & Clinical Director at NHS Drugs and Alcohol Treatment Services ★ Helping people to access the best addiction treatment experts, rehabs and follow-up for recovery

May 17, 2023

Substance use can severely impact all facets of a person’s life.

In spite of the negative toll that substance use disorders can take on an individual’s life, many people who suffer from such conditions do not ask for help.

Unfortunately, there are several barriers to treatment that deter individuals from seeking support. In 2022, Farhoudian et al. carried out a systematic review of studies identifying and grouping barriers and facilitators to substance use disorder treatment.

The research has identified barriers at the individual, social, and structural levels.

Individual barriers

The study identified that certain beliefs about treatment, perceived fears, and character traits can play a role in an individual’s choice to not seek treatment. Treatment can be perceived by people with substance use disorders as unnecessary or unhelpful. Furthermore, fears of being incarcerated and stigmatized can play a huge role in the choice of not seeking treatment. Often, people with substance use disorders struggle with self-blame, shame, and guilt. Coupled with low self-esteem, these feelings can dim the individual’s hope for a better future and cause them to disregard treatment.

Social barriers

Stigma is a huge barrier to recovery from substance use disorder. Discrimination existing around drug use at the societal level can be a significant deterrent for someone who struggles with addiction. As confirmed by the 2020 UNODC Conference Room Paper, an individual who feels stigmatized is significantly less likely to seek professional help. Unfortunately, stigmatizing attitudes are often perpetrated by the very professionals who are supposed to provide support and treatment. Furthermore, the lack of support from a network of family and friends diminishes the individual’s motivation to seek support. This could also result from the direct influence of family and friends who also struggle with substance use disorders.

Structural barriers

Individuals can be discouraged from all kinds of problems related to treatment providers: from infinite waiting lists to expensive costs. Unfortunately, the lack of adequate expertise of healthcare and social professionals also acts as a huge deterrent for people who struggle with drug use. As suggested by a study by Van Boekel et al., stigmatizing attitudes toward patients with substance use are not uncommon among health professionals. These unhelpful practices can range from the use of stigmatizing language to a lack of basic empathy and understanding of the patient’s condition. Legal and policy barriers have also been identified as deterrents. For example, the criminalization of drug use can instill fear of incarceration in an individual who is thinking of seeking treatment.

A substance use disorder is a health condition. People who struggle with drug use deserve adequate treatment and support.

Marginalisation, stigma, discrimination, and other deterrents may dissuade many individuals who need help from seeking it. In order to grant these people the help they need, society, policymakers, and decision-makers at all levels must work on removing barriers and creating a stigma-free environment where substance use disorders can be treated effectively.

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