Overcoming the Stigma of Addiction

In April 2014, a mother in South Carolina was sentenced to 20 years in prison after being convicted of homicide by child abuse, involuntary manslaughter and unlawful conduct toward a child. Her real crime was allegedly passing on morphine to her baby through breast milk.

When the infant died in November 2010 at just six weeks old, the medical examiner found enough morphine in her brain, liver and blood to kill an adult. Toxicologists also found the drug Klonopin in the baby’s system1.

Most opinions about the 39-year-old mother, who was a former nurse, were not kind.

“She loved her drugs more than she loved her child,” prosecutor Barry Barnette told the Spartanburg, S.C., jury in summations.

During the trial, the mother was also accused of using her nursing skills to hide her drug abuse from doctors, keeping them from discovering that she was using morphine and other drugs while pregnant and nursing.

The defense’s lawyer countered that his client is “a woman in pain.”

While people should be held legally accountable when their addiction causes harm to others, the responses to this story show that much is still misunderstood about substance abuse.

The Root of Addiction

Addiction almost always stems from some type of pain. In the beginning, it’s often about trying to manage or avoid unwanted negative feelings or physical pain. No one sets out to harm loved ones or others when they begin using drugs or alcohol. No one plans to become addicted. Unfortunately, that’s often what happens. By the time someone realizes they have a problem, they can’t stop on their own. The feelings they were trying to avoid are now secondary to the need for their drug of choice.

It can be easy to demonize a parent when their addiction negatively affects a child, and the story above is certainly tragic. But it’s important to remember that when someone is sick, they don’t just need consequences for their actions, they need treatment for the root cause of those actions.

When Stigma Is a Barrier to Treatment

You’d never blame a cancer patient or heart attack sufferer for causing their disease, but those who struggle with addiction also have to battle the stigma that goes along with substance abuse.

According to statistics from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Approximately 40.3 million Americans suffer from the disease of addiction. That’s a much higher number than the 27 million who have heart disease, the 25.8 million with diabetes or the 19.4 million with cancer, yet there is a huge disparity in what the United States spends to treat addiction in comparison to each of the other diseases2.

While cancer patients are looked on sympathetically, and loved ones rally to provide assistance, addiction is viewed in a different light. “Can’t they just stop?” people often ask, failing to grasp the scope of the problem. Those in need of treatment are often seen as weak or lacking willpower, but that’s just not the case. Those who overcome this widespread problem and achieve lasting recovery should be seen as heroic.

The Science of Addiction

A variety of brain areas and processes play a role in addictive behaviors, complicating treatment and costing millions of dollars and lives each year. But new research is helping to expand our understanding of disorders, providing insight into how addictions develop and the best ways to treat them.

Some of the most exciting new findings include:

  1. Magnetic stimulation of the brain helps some people decrease their smoking, and even quit altogether for up to six months after treatment.
  2. Stimulating an area of the brain associated with drug reward, the subthalamic nucleus, reduces rats’ motivation to take heroin.
  3. Chronic pain leads rats already exposed to drugs to take more and higher doses of heroin, suggesting that people with addiction are more susceptible to overdose when in chronic pain3.

While addiction may begin, at least in part, as an attempt to reduce stress, anxiety or depression, drug abuse actually stresses the brain. Recent research shows that the resulting dysregulation of systems involved in the stress response could contribute to negative feelings that trigger increased drug taking and addiction. These new findings help provide researchers with additional targets to explore as they continue to explore the best ways to treat a population suffering from addiction4.

The more we can understand the science behind addiction, the easier it will be to combat the negative stigma that keeps many from seeking treatment.


1. “Woman Found Guilty In Tainted Breast Milk Trial,” accessed May 28, 2014 (http://www.goupstate.com/article/20140403/ARTICLES/140409914)

2. “Why the US Fails at Treating Addiction,” accessed June 2, 2014 (http://www.livescience.com/41557-why-america-fails-at-addiction-treatment.html)

3. “Studies Explore Origins of Addictions, Treatments,” accessed June 2, 2014 (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/11/131112141813.htm)

4. “Studies Explore Origins of Addictions, Treatments,” accessed June 2, 2014 (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/11/131112141813.htm)

Articles posted here are primarily educational and may not directly reflect the offerings at The Oaks. For more specific information on programs at The Oaks, contact us today.