Surviving Rehab Without Ruining Your Professional Reputation

By Jane St. Clair

One of the most common reasons people give for not entering drug rehab is that they are afraid it will ruin their careers. Researchers call it “stigma.”

Stigma is a serious problem because only about 6 percent of the people who abuse drugs or alcohol get treatment. More than one in four say they are afraid to enter a drug rehabilitation program because of stigma. This translates into eight million Americans who forego addiction treatment because they are overly concerned about what other people think.

The Stigma of Addiction

According to one study of 1,100 substance abusers, 20 percent believed they would face derision, demotion and even termination of their employment if they entered addiction treatment. A typical response was, ” am leery of taking advantage of even free rehabilitation for fear I’ll be branded the office junkie.”

Researchers in the field of addiction medicine talk about three kinds of stigma: self-stigma, perceived stigma and enacted stigma.

• Self-stigma points to the negative thoughts and feelings people have about their own substance abuse and treatment.
• Perceived stigma involves people’s beliefs about society’s attitudes toward a stigmatized group.
• Enacted stigma is what actually happens to members of the group, such as difficulties getting hired, poor support and social rejection.

These forms of stigma are three different things. What actually happens is usually not the same as what people perceive will happen, and people often hold themselves back because of their own beliefs and prejudices, not society’s.

The biggest dangers of self-stigma are diminished self-esteem, fewer social opportunities and less willingness to seek drug treatment. Perceived stigma is also harmful. In one study of 92 people being treated for depression, nearly everybody held disparaging views of people with mental illness. This perceived stigma predicted their early discontinuation of treatment.

The Truth About Drug Rehab

Whatever your fears about seeking addiction treatment, the truth is employed people who enter substance abuse treatment are more likely to keep their jobs, or get even better ones after they complete their drug rehab program. The greatest overall gains usually take place six months after treatment and the greatest gains in employment occur 24 months post-treatment.

Research shows that substance abuse treatment increases the number of people in the workforce and that people who continue to use drugs are more likely to become permanently unemployed. Being employed after treatment helps keep people free of substance abuse and is a predictor of successful treatment.

One government study of 5,664 individuals in the state of Washington found that while the majority were unemployed at the start, they were more likely to become employed if they completed their substance abuse  programs.  In one survey of 83 drug abuse counselors, the counselors told researchers that they believed that getting off drugs or alcohol was a plus in their clients’ favor. If clients faced employment problems, the counselors believed they were a result of poor work histories, criminal records and lack of job skills, not the stigma of addiction.

In general, people who are employed and who are better educated are more likely to complete substance abuse treatment. One researcher studied 150 males and 160 females in residential treatment. Sixty-three percent of the men and 45 percent of the women had at least bachelor’s degrees, and 78 percent of the men were in executive or administrative positions. The vast majority (93 percent) of their employers knew that the study subjects were in executive rehab treatment programs.

The researchers followed up six months and one year after treatment. Those who had been referred into treatment by their employers had the highest rates of completion. Absences dropped from nine days a month to one, and employees said they had fewer incidents of discipline in the workplace. The percent of employees who thought their job was in jeopardy dropped from 18 percent at the beginning of treatment to 5 percent after a year of follow-up. They told researchers that their health was better, and their relationships with their “significant others” and families had improved. Most of their legal problems went away. The majority were able to maintain continuous abstinence after one year.

Addiction Treatment Saves Careers

If you are afraid to enter a substance abuse program because of concerns about your career, you are not alone. Try allowing yourself to think for a moment that the opposite could be true – that is, that completing a drug rehab program could actually enhance your career. This has been the experience of the majority of people who went before you.

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