The Stigma of Opioid Addiction
People who struggle with addictions to prescription painkillers and heroin (known as opioids) face a wide range of stigmas. A stigma is a mark of disgrace that sets a person or a group apart.
When people are labeled primarily because of their addiction, they are being negatively stereotyped. Biased, hurtful words, attitudes and behavior represent prejudices against people with substance use disorder, and often lead to their discrimination and social exclusion.
Stigmas can also create physical and mental barriers for people with addiction to seeking treatment.
Personal, Social and Institutional Stigma
Stigmas aimed at people with substance use disorders come from many sources. In recent research*, people in recovery from addiction have identified the following examples:
• Personal. Self-disgust, shame and self-hate at one’s own appearance, behavior, lifestyle and/or physical condition, as well as feelings of being unworthy of help or recovery.
• Social. Negative perceptions, labels and actions from friends or family; feeling isolated or rejected.
• Institutional. Negative treatment and attitudes experienced from healthcare providers, the media, law enforcement, places of work or government agencies.
Examples of Stigma
Recent interviews with people in recovery from opioid addiction report the following examples of stigma*:
• Hurtful words and labels, including junkie, loser, thief, druggie, abuser and addict
• Comments, such as “Once a junkie, always a junkie” or “You’re not fit to be a parent.”
• Perceptions, including:
- Addiction is a personal choice (when in fact it’s a disease).
- Addiction is a sign of human weakness, or a lack of morals or willpower.
- Addiction is the result of poor parenting.
• People in recovery with children have experienced other parents unwilling to let their children play at their schoolmate’s homes.
• Some communities view addiction as a crime, an act that must be penalized, versus a disease that needs treatment.
• People known to local law enforcement have reported being “profiled.”
Addiction is a Disease
Many science and medical practitioners have concluded that addiction is a chronic, often relapsing disease of the brain. Addiction in some cases may have genetic roots. Although the initial decision to take drugs may be voluntary, chemical and neurological changes to the brain severely restrict a person’s self-control. The disease hinders one’s ability to resist intense impulses to take drugs – despite harmful consequences to the addicted individual and to those around him or her.**
What Can We Do?
It’s important to understand that opioid addiction is a treatable disease. On a personal level, we can look honestly at ourselves for signs of our own stigmas – negative, biased feelings, words or behaviors. We can make the effort to look at addiction from a different and hopefully more positive perspective.
We are all affected by the current epidemic of opioid addiction. Many people know someone who struggles with addiction, or who is in treatment or recovery.
• We can all be part of the solution.
• We can take a stand against stigma.
• We can support treatment opportunities.
• We can encourage people in recovery.
• Most importantly, we can talk about addiction amongst our friends and family members to hopefully address the misperceptions about addiction, treatment options and long-term recovery.
• Each of us can commit to not using hurtful or damaging words about those who face addiction.
* 2015 research on stigma for people with addiction disorders conducted by the Massachusetts Bureau of Substance Abuse Services, Department of Public Health, Executive Office of Health and Human Services.
** "DrugFacts: Understanding Drug Abuse and Addiction," National Institute on Drug Abuse (2012)