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Alcoholism & Diabetes Are Both Chronic Diseases - Why Is Only One Stigmatized?

Alcoholism and Diabetes are both are chronic diseases. Although the treatment for these two diseases differs, they are both lifelong and can be fatal if not treated properly. This blog addresses them and why they are perceived so differently.

Both Have Symptoms that Can Be Treated

The symptoms of Diabetes are frequent urination, feeling thirsty, feeling very hungry even though you’ve been eating, fatigue, blurred vision, and tingling pain or numbness in hands and feet. When Diabetes is properly managed under the supervision of a qualified physician, it can be placed in remission and the long-term effects minimized. It also requires a significant change in lifestyle. In addition, a great deal of attention and research is spent in developing best practice methods for treatment.

Markers or symptoms of Alcoholism include drinking more than planned or intended, failing to fulfill obligations, continued use despite negative impact on relationships, financial situation or health, using alcohol in situations that could be physically harmful such as drinking and driving, showing increased tolerance for alcohol, experiencing withdrawal symptoms when attempting to stop drinking, losing interest in once enjoyed activities, overcome with a craving alcohol first thing in the morning, spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about drinking, acquiring alcohol and referring to and recovering from hangovers (Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation). When properly managed under the supervision of a qualified professional, it can be placed in remission and the long-term effects minimized. It also requires a significant change in lifestyle.

Why Are They Viewed So Differently?

As with Diabetes, Alcoholism receives a great deal of attention and research in developing best practice methods for treatment; however, there is a difference in the attitudes that family members, the general public and sometimes even professionals have concerning these two diseases. My clinical experience with both diseases has shown that individuals with Diabetes are not subjected to nearly as much judgement as those individuals that have Alcoholism.

Research has shown a significant component to Alcoholism is that patients deny their disease. In other words, Addiction is a disease that tells the sufferer that they do not have a disease. This fact alone causes the alcoholic to receive much ridicule.

While a person with the symptoms of Diabetes tends to be viewed simply as a person with a disease, an individual with Alcoholism is often viewed as a person of poor character. The symptoms of Alcoholism cause good people to act in ways that break trust and they often appear to lack integrity. Frequently the spouse of an alcoholic is blamed for the addiction, and even children alcoholics are perceived in negative terms.

There are even studies that have found some psychologists and physicians avoid the treatment of alcoholics altogether. These professionals see them as patients who are too time consuming for the results obtained. Research also supports that hospital staff in general have a negative attitude towards the alcoholic patient. My clinical experience supports these conclusions.

Even though a case can be made that Diabetes can be linked to Addiction through substance (food) abuse, diseases linked to abusing food carry less of a social stigma. A further review of the literature indicates that even when compared to genetically linked mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Alcoholism is more severely stigmatized by the general public. The general public blames an alcoholic more than individuals with other mental disorders, including depression. They hold them more accountable for the condition.

Stating it another way, one research study found that mental diseases such as schizophrenia are seen as involuntary behavior. Although those diseases also present as deviant behavior, Addiction is still perceived as voluntary behavior, and thus the purpose of stigmatization is an attempt to enforce social norms.


There is a developing body of literature that shows the stigma related to alcoholism, as with other prejudices, is a learned behavior. Therefore, it can be unlearned with therapy and education. There are a number of training methods that show promise in changing the general public’s and professional’s attitudes toward alcoholics.

In conclusion I would say that the view of alcoholics today remains to a great extent a moral problem and that the individual has much more control over their behavior than is actually true. Even though Diabetes and Alcoholism are both chronic diseases, it’s the behavior of the alcoholic and the perceived free choice of an alcoholic that contribute to the stigma. Alcoholics are mistakenly seen as “nonconformists” that break the rules by choice.

If you or a loved one may be struggling with addiction, it is very important for you to seek out professional help as soon as possible. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me if I may be of assistance to you or your loved ones. My website provides more information on my practice and how to contact me with questions or take advantage of a free 20-minute phone appointment.

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