Stigma makes it harder to tackle the ongoing substance use crises in our country. We can all help change this.
Substance use issues can affect anyone. A 2021 national survey found that nearly 1 in 3 adults has a substance use or mental health disorder. Last year, there were more than 100,000 overdose deaths in the United States and three-quarters of those were opioid-related.
Hidden in those numbers is the story of the ways stigma isolates individuals with addiction, and limits their access to care and services that could improve their health and quality of life. Reducing stigma can improve access to and quality of evidence-based treatment, and the first step to reducing stigma is understanding it.
Substance use disorders are complex
Substance use disorders are among the most stigmatized health conditions. Stigma shows up in many ways and harms people with addiction. For example, in our society, addiction is often viewed as a moral failing rather than a health concern, reflecting deep-rooted stereotypes and negative attitudes. Faced with this stigma, people with addiction are less likely to seek care, and those who do approach the health system often experience discrimination. Even clinicians prescribing medication for substance use disorders may be seen as “enabling” addiction.
Stigma is also embedded in policies and practices, creating barriers that disproportionately affect people who are at higher risk for developing addiction and exacerbating health inequities.
Stigma isolates people
Just 13% of people with substance use disorders receive treatment and only 1 in 5 people with opioid use disorder receive treatment medication. Stigma is one of the most common reasons that someone with substance use disorder may not seek treatment at all.
Effective medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treating substance use disorders exist, but these treatments are often restricted, difficult to access, or under-prescribed. This sidelines powerful tools for addressing substance use disorders and contributes to low treatment numbers.
Stigma makes it harder to address addiction
Just as stigma creates barriers for individuals seeking care, it is a roadblock to enacting policies and practices that can help address addiction and urgent issues, such as the current overdose crisis. Negative perceptions and attitudes toward people with substance use disorders can erode support for public policies that help address addiction and emerging crises.
Addiction is often approached punitively instead of as a health condition with treatment options available. People with substance use disorders can also face issues like discriminatory housing and employment policies, further isolating them from opportunities and care.
Putting an end to stigma
Reducing stigma against substance use disorders begins with individual action. By educating oneself about addiction, meaningfully engaging with and learning from those with lived experience, and using person-first language, we can foster a more compassionate perspective. Sharing this knowledge with others and encouraging action amplifies the impact, helping create a ripple effect across society.
Together, our individual efforts can significantly reduce stigma, paving the way to better care and support for people with substance use disorders, and ultimately aiding in the battle against this devastating public health crisis plaguing our nation.
The National Academy of Medicine’s Action Collaborative on Countering the U.S. Opioid Epidemic is a public-private partnership committed to developing and sharing solutions designed to improve outcomes for individuals, families, and communities affected by the opioid crisis.