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The Persistent Stigma of Substance Use Disorders

“Stigma is a five dollar word for a two dollar concept. It’s prejudice.”

Stigma, a set of negative stereotypes tied to behavioral health conditions, is not a new problem. Results of a recent survey suggest that views may be changing when it comes to mental illness. Advocacy efforts are getting results, and the public is beginning to recognize that mental illness is, in fact, a health condition.

We need a similar evolution to start when it comes to substance use disorders. Public perception of what it means to be addicted hasn’t shifted significantly. This is a problem.

In a study of Americans conducted by Johns Hopkins University, only 22% of people surveyed were willing to work closely with someone suffering from drug addiction, yet 62% were willing to work closely with someone suffering from mental illness.

Every person struggling to manage a substance use disorder, and every family stigmatized while supporting a loved one, are part of this broader landscape. Our current culture of stigma creates resistance to funding prevention and treatment. Belief that persons with substance use disorders are immoral, not ill, reduces support for behavioral health-centered policy.

Funding for treatment of substance use disorders isn’t commensurate with the scope of the problem. If substance use were recognized by the public as a health issue, it’s likely that prevention would be a higher priority.

We must help each other, and our communities, reshape the distorted image of substance use disorder as criminal and deviant. A person with a substance use disorder remains a person first. Examples of person-first language for substance use are included in this chart shared by Michael Botticelli, Director of Office of National Drug Control Policy. Note: Mr. Botticelli is himself a person in long-term recovery.

Language for addiction

Of course, stigma-free language is only one step and changing a stereotype takes time. We should see this as part of the process of removing structural roadblocks to health. As we break the persistent stigma that clings to substance use disorders, we’ll turn the focus instead to very real opportunities that exist for health and recovery.

Written by Margaret Farenger

Margaret Farenger is a writer, consultant, and media & policy advocate working to improve public health. As a former community organizer, she applies an equity lens to health issues. This includes looking upstream at the social determinants of health, deconstructing social barriers and biases, and weighing the benefits of policy solutions.

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