Family Matters- Stigma sticks

Listening to families can help them overcome stigma, says Joss Smith


Families are often hidden from policy discussions around drugs and alcohol and stigma is no different. 

 The impacts of stigma on the whole family can be insidious and pervasive, leaving families frozen with the trauma and suffering that comes with having a loved one abusing substances. 

 We know that a well-informed, well-engaged and well-supported family member can have a positive impact on their loved one’s recovery and on their own health and wellbeing. We also know that stigma and shame prevent families seeking that support. Adfam wanted to talk to families further to understand how this stigma manifests itself in their everyday lives and how they feel it prevents them and their relative from making positive changes. We spoke to four focus groups around the country, families who have either experienced or are still experiencing stigma from communities, professionals and even friends and families. We didn’t seek to generate stats but wanted to share their often unheard narratives and thoughts on how things could change, and we launched the report Challenging stigma; tackling the prejudice experienced by the families of drug and alcohol users on 31 October.

 One of the most striking experiences the families described was that of isolation. Once people knew, or it was rumoured, that someone in the family was using substances, the  phone stopped ringing, people crossed the street to avoid them, trust disintegrated at work or people became twitchy about their property. One wife whose husband was using cocaine said: ‘I’ve stopped going out and communicating with anyone, and I can’t mention his name to my family as it is like mud. They probably think I am an idiot and going to become untrustworthy.’  The families also talked about a sense that this label was going to stick with them and their family no matter what they did. One family member in Lambeth said: ‘I got people saying “oh you must be a low life because why would you want to be with a heroin addict?”’ 

 Hope and persistence were very apparent, however – hope that their loved ones could make positive changes and recover. But to support the substance user, they needed help themselves. Families’ lives can be led into chaos, and attempting to maintain faith in the recovery journey takes an extraordinary level of resilience and strength.  One mother said: ‘Even if it’s your own child, other family members or neighbours can make you feel very hurt, very depressed and you’re very stressed out already. By people not supporting you it makes it worse. You think it is something you did.’

 With the help of specific services, families can begin to understand addiction and recovery and find the strength to support their loved one appropriately. As one family member explained: ‘You get great strength to support them in the end, but it takes a long time to get used to the idea of what has happened.’ These family support services do exist – not as many as we would like and not in all areas that they need to be, but often the sense of shame and stigma stops families reaching out. The stigma that families face needs to be challenged. We need to find a way for families to access support, improve the quality of their own lives and help strengthen the recovery journey of their loved one.

 Joss Smith is director of policy and regional development at Adfam,