The news out of Columbia University: People identified as alcoholics at some point in their lifetimes were more than 60 percent less likely to seek treatment if their perception was that they’d be stigmatized once they let people know about their alcoholism. So fear of stigma, the study concluded, was a potential explanation for how few alcoholics who really need treatment actually manage to get it (less than 25 percent).

The study was published in a November issue of American Journal of Epidemiology.

Additional findings…

People who are more afraid of stigma:

  • Men
  • lower-income people
  • people with lower educational achievement
  • Hispanics and non-Hispanic blacks

People who are less afraid of stigma:

  • Women
  • Those married or formerly married to an alcoholic

A conclusion the researchers drew from these findings:

Closeness predicts lower perceptions of stigma.

The researchers call for national campaigns to reduce stigma and perceptions of stigma. They point out that evidence shows “stigmatizing attitudes” toward mental illness can be changed, but no national efforts have targeted alcoholism in particular.

This all seems to harmonize with some new work I’m discovering.

Brené Brown

Brené Brown, Ph.D.

Brené Brown, PhD, a research social worker who teaches at the University of Houston, has spent the past 10 years or so studying the dynamics of shame. “Stigma”—which comes from an Old English word meaning “to brand with a pointed stick”—means nothing more than “to mark with shame.”

“Shame” itself is an even more ancient word whose roots mean “to cover oneself.” Essentially, “to disappear” because of self-hatred. Exactly the side-effect I was looking for in painkillers. I wanted to numb out thoroughly, to Get Small, to disappear. The extra-added energy-boost was fun while it lasted, but even after that left me, I continued to use because I just wanted to Go Away. I was also afraid of the physical pain.

Brown, in her recent Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) talk, suggests that we are a numbing-out culture. We are so afraid to be vulnerable, to feel vulnerability, that we numb it out before we can feel it. We use anything: food, Internet, shopping, gambling, alcohol, drugs. She says:

We cannot selectively numb feelings. . . . So when we numb [bad feelings], we numb joy. We numb gratitude. We numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning. And then we feel vulnerable . . .  And it becomes this dangerous cycle.

Brown says those who allow themselves to “soften into loving someone, to care about something passionately”—to be vulnerable—are the people who are more able to get help when they need it. Which is what these Columbia researchers are saying: Closeness predicts lower perceptions of stigma. People who have close relationships have less fear of shame and are better able to get help.

Listen to her talk this weekend. Makes me want to go back to grad school.