Stigma — now that’s a loaded word.
Merriam-Webster defines stigma as a mark of shame or discredit, a stain on one’s reputation. It is by no means a positive attribute.
So, what does attaching stigma to opioid addiction accomplish?
As someone who has worked in this field for many years and in many different capacities, I have interacted with thousands of people who have used opioids, and also with many of their family members. I have seen firsthand how stigma can manifest, the shame and trauma it causes, and the harm it does to people with an opioid-use disorder, their families and their communities.
With support, most people successfully recover from an addiction to opioids. They may recover by utilizing some sort of medication-assisted treatment. Some may participate in 12-step programs, in secular, abstinence-based programs or a combination of different methods. Some will find motivation in themselves, some in family or friends, and some in their community.
Stigma as barrier
Yet substance-use disorders consistently rank among the most stigmatized conditions, and that stigma is a major barrier for those seeking treatment. People must be able to access treatment in order to benefit from it. In fact, data from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health spotlights the impact stigma can have on those who would like to access treatment.
According to the survey, 17 percent of respondents age 12 and older said they did not seek substance-use treatment in the last year because they thought it might cause neighbors or their community to have a negative opinion of them — even though the respondents felt they needed treatment.
The survey also showed that stigma can reach into the workplace, with 20.5 percent of respondents saying they did not seek treatment for drug use because it might have a negative effect on their job. We know that 70 percent of individuals struggling with addiction are employed, making it that much more important that workplaces address stigma. Workers with substance-use disorders miss nearly 50 percent more days than their peers. However, employers have the ability to reverse that trend by putting a supportive structure in place, encouraging those struggling to seek help. An employer-support structure provides stability and a safe place for an employee seeking recovery — a very important building block.
Compassion and support
No matter the story behind why a person developed an opioid-use disorder, it is imperative that society recognizes that addiction is a complex, long-lasting medical condition — not a moral shortcoming — and treat it as such. We must always remember that the vast majority of people with a substance-use disorder do recover.
If we as a society replace stigma and judgment with compassion and unwavering support, we can help people with opioid-use disorders get the treatment they need to live productive, positive lives.
Rachael Cooper, Senior Program Manager for Substance Use Harm Prevention at the National Safety Council, [email protected]