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How to Support Stigma Reduction in Opioid Addiction and Treatment

Man sitting alone on a subway train, looking down, reflecting the emotional weight of addiction and the important of stigma reduction.

Addiction is a disease that can affect anyone, and in the United States, 1 in 7 people are living with a substance use disorder. There are several biological, environmental, and developmental factors that can lead a person to addiction, from past traumatic experiences to current physical health issues. One of the factors that causes addiction to be a persistent issue is the stigma that surrounds it. To better understand how stigma affects substance use disorder treatment and recovery, we need to engage in stigma reduction by first recognizing what stigma looks like and what we can do to reduce its impact. 

Understanding the Stigma of Addiction 

Stigma refers to the negative beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors our society has toward substance use disorders. This often leads to prejudice and discrimination against people with these conditions. 

According to research from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Americans view drug addiction more negatively than mental illness. The study found among the people surveyed that: 

  • 64% think employers can deny employment to people with drug addiction (25% for mental illness) and 54% think landlords can deny housing for people with drug addiction (15% for mental illness) 
  • Respondents were more likely to oppose increasing government spending for drug addiction vs mental illness when it comes to treatment programs (49% vs 33%), subsidized housing (76% vs 45%), and job support (46% vs 32%) 
  • 63% do not view discrimination against drug addiction as a serious problem, compared to 38% for discrimination against mental illness 

While these findings highlight some of the major challenges reinforced by stigma, there are even greater long-term effects if we do not focus on stigma reduction. 

Close-up of a man's crossed arms signaling the challenges faced in overcoming addiction and the need for stigma reduction.

The Impact of Stigma on Individuals 

For individuals struggling with addiction, self-stigma can have a significant influence on their decision to seek help or not. Self-stigma occurs when people develop negative feelings about themselves after experiencing negative social reactions to their substance use disorder. 

If someone is trying to avoid feelings of self-stigma, they may isolate themselves from others and use drugs alone to hide their substance use, which can be dangerous. In addition, they may be reluctant to use harm reduction programs or engage in treatment. This can prolong their health problems and cycles of addiction. 

Self-stigma can also be especially difficult for people who already feel marginalized based on their personal identities (e.g. race, gender), their health conditions (e.g. HIV/AIDS, mental illness), or their social situations (e.g. poverty, criminality). 

Social Stigma Around Substance Use 

As a society, we tend to develop stigma around behaviors that we view as different from the acceptable norm. Rather than believing that addiction is a public health issue, we often treat substance use disorders as ethical and criminal issues. 

Research has shown that people often view addiction is a choice, not a disease. They believe it comes from a lack of willpower and moral standards. In addition, people often view addiction to illegal drugs like heroin, fentanyl, and cocaine more negatively than addiction to legal substances such as alcohol and tobacco. 

Stigma is not only an issue in the general public, but also among healthcare professionals who treat people with addiction. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, emergency department physicians have a lower regard for patients with substance use disorders than other medical issues with behavioral components.

A woman sitting on a subways, looking up thoughtfully, symbolizing contemplation and hope in context of stigma reduction and reducing the stigma of addiction.

Stigma’s Effects on Community Structure 

It is clear from the statistics outlined above that stigma has the potential to impact many areas of life for people with substance use disorders. Companies and organizations often have practices that limit employment and housing access for those with a history of drug addiction. 

Additionally, federal, state, and local policies often punish substance use, aiming to promote public health. However, for incarcerated people, accessing the necessary treatment for recovery and societal contribution is challenging.

Finally, stigma can hinder the appreciation for high-quality, community-based substance use disorder treatment and services. This perception stems from fears that such programs introduce dangerous individuals into neighborhoods and communities.

Stigma Reduction Strategies 

To address the stigma of addiction, there are steps we can take on individual, societal, and structural levels that include: 

  • Emphasizing Effective Treatment: There is plenty of research to support that addiction is a treatable disease. Approaches like medication-assisted treatment (MAT) are effective in helping people find recovery. Highlight these studies along with available treatment near you to fight stigma in the community. 
  • Using Person First Language: The words we use every day have the power to shape the attitudes and beliefs of those around us. Learn how replacing terms like “addict” and “junkie” with “a person who uses substances” can challenge our perceptions and shatter our stigmas around substance use and addiction. 
  • Supporting Harm Reduction: Not every person with a substance use disorder is ready or able to stop using drugs immediately. That’s why harm reduction programs offer support to help keep people safe when there are no other options. Discover why this approach is critical for reducing the stigma around people seeking help. 
  • Advocating for New Policies: It is important to help policymakers understand that addiction is a public health issue. Therefore, it needs the support of policies and funding that address the root causes of substance use. Contact your local legislators to voice concern with existing policies or support for new policies. 
A group of individuals sitting in a circle at a counseling session, smiling and listening to a speaker, embodying support and understanding in the journey towards reducing the stigma of addiction for stigma reduction.

Finding Support From BAART Programs 

The staff at our BAART Programs treatment centers understand the importance of stigma reduction, treatment, and recovery. Every day, we focus on providing the non-judgmental care you deserve, tailoring our medication-assisted treatment, individual counseling, and support services to meet your needs. Our goal is to break down the barriers created by stigma and help you achieve long-term recovery. 

If you or someone you know is living with an opioid addiction, we want to help you find the path to recovery. Reach out for support from the BAART Programs team by contacting us today or finding a treatment center near you. 

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