Rise Above — the Stigma of Addiction 8-Sep-19

Since September is National Recovery Month (https://recoverymonth.gov/), I thought I would revisit the topic of stigma reduction…

Stigma prevents addicts from getting the help they need. Stigma they place on themselves-“I am so worthless. Nobody should have to deal with me.” Stigma society places on the addict-“He’s a junkie and thief. Why should I help him?” Stigma the healthcare community places on the addict-“She’s drug seeking. I don’t want to deal with that.” These attitudes keep the addict stuck and the epidemic of opioid abuse going. If we can stop, or at least minimize, the stigma associated with addiction, we can begin to slow the epidemic. We can start to reverse the devastating effects of addiction on the addict, their families and friends, and the communities that have seen an overwhelming increase in the number of opioid related overdoses and deaths.

To do this, we must work together. As an addict in recovery, I am open about my struggles and I take every opportunity I can to share my story. I believe this is where stigma reduction starts. When a recovering addict shares openly about their struggle through addiction, people see addicts as people, members of the community. It happens to people from all walks of life. Recovery is possible. If I can stay in recovery for 14 years (and counting), so can anyone else.

Below are some discussion points and tips on how to reduce stigma. Please read it and share it with anyone who you think may benefit from its contents.

“Shaming the Sick: Addiction and Stigma”

Stigma is defined as a set of negative beliefs that a group or society holds about a topic or group of people. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), stigma is a major cause of discrimination and exclusion. When a person experiences stigma they are seen as less than because of their real or perceived health status. Stigma is rarely based on facts but rather on assumptions, preconceptions, and generalizations; therefore, its negative impact can be prevented or lessened through education. Stigma results in prejudice, avoidance, rejection, and discrimination against people who have a socially undesirable trait or engage in culturally marginalized behaviors, such as drug use (Link, 2001).

In 2017, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 19.7 million Americans age 12 and older had a substance use disorder. Sadly, however, only 4 million received the specialized treatment they needed.

Recovery Brands conducted a survey of people who use drugs, and respondents provided written reflections about what they wished people or society at large understood about addiction:

  • “Just because I am an addict doesn’t make me a bad person.”
  • “It’s not a matter of willpower or a lack of a moral compass.”
  • “Addiction is not the entirety of me, I am more than my addiction.”
  • “I wish people saw the time addicts spend alone thinking about everything they’ve done.”

People who experience stigma regarding their drug use are less likely to seek treatment. Some healthcare providers feel uncomfortable when working with people who are dependent on drugs. It can affect their willingness to assess or treat the patient for substance abuse, how they approach him or her, and it may prevent addicted individuals from seeking healthcare altogether.

Perceived stigma can also be internalized. People who use drugs can view themselves as defective; this can severely impact their self-esteem and self-worth. Historically, a dependence on drugs has been viewed as immoral or the result of a lack of self-control. These views contribute to stigma and present barriers to people accessing necessary treatment.

Effective ways for individuals to help reduce stigma include:

  • Offering compassionate support.
  • Displaying kindness to people in vulnerable situations.
  • Listening while withholding judgment.
  • Seeing a person for who they are, not what drugs they use.
  • Doing your research; learning about drug dependency and how it works.
  • Treating people with drug dependency with dignity and respect.
  • Avoiding hurtful labels.
  • Replacing negative attitudes with evidence-based facts.
  • Speaking up when you see someone mistreated because of their drug use.
  • Sharing your own stories of stigma.


  • https://drugabuse.com/library/addiction-stigma/
  • Link, B. G., & Phelan, J. C. (2001). Conceptualizing stigma. Annual review of Sociology, 363-385.
  • The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA). (2010). New CASA Report Finds: 65% of all U.S. Inmates Meet Medical Criteria for Substance Abuse Addiction, Only 11% Receive Any Treatment.

For more information and a toolkit to help you and your community address the issues with addiction related stigma, see link below…

About the Author

Kristin Waite-Labott is a registered nurse and recovering addict who has firsthand experience with the challenges of addiction. She now works as the Head Nurse Coach at Veritus, a virtual treatment program for nurses with substance use and mental health disorders, and is dedicated to helping nurses overcome addiction and making a difference in the lives of others. Kristin is passionate about addressing the growing problem of addiction among healthcare professionals and encourages open discussions and action to prevent it from spreading further.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *