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Shining a Light on Stigma and Substance Use Disorder

Sep 13, 2023

September is National Recovery Month, an annual observance to educate Americans that appropriate treatment and mental health services can help those with substance use disorder (SUD) live healthier lives. Sadly, this ideal remains difficult to achieve because of bias in how we view addiction in this country.

At MetaStar, we’ve identified stigma as a primary major public health challenge. Stigma can prevent people with SUD from seeking help, even if they desperately want it. Educational programs and policy innovations have helped, but there is still work to be done to help eliminate stigma and help those struggling with SUD.

Systemic issues work against those fighting addiction

Imagine SUD as a very large boulder a patient carries with them every day. Should this person also have a mental health disorder—which often is the case—this adds a second boulder. If they happen to be a person of color, they’re weighed down by three boulders. If they’re a woman, by four, and if they’re living in poverty, five, and so on.

Despite good intentions, the healthcare community struggles with systemic issues in deploying appropriate, evidence-based treatment to those who most need it for SUD, as well as additional challenges. We know there are effective treatment options, but the question remains: How do we get the right treatment, to the right patient, at the right time?

Too often, the healthcare community chases the latest “solutions,” such as smartphone apps, telehealth, and AI-supported tools without reflecting on a root cause—stigma—and how overcoming that can help pave a smoother road to recovery.

Overcoming stigma

Stigma continues to cast a shadow over efforts to provide effective treatment for those grappling with SUD. This pervasive, societal shaming creates barriers at every stage of the recovery journey:

  • Structural stigma leads to discriminatory policies and practices, such as a devaluing of treatment care providers, treatment entry procedures designed to present hurdles to those who are seeking care, and limited insurance coverage.
  • Continued stigma on the part of healthcare providers can lead to mistreatment of those seeking help.
  • And lastly, as people internalize negative stereotypes, it leads to feelings of shame and worthlessness, making a person feel as if they aren’t even worthy of getting better.

The Shine a Light podcast, which focuses on reducing stigma, recently featured a guest from a rural area who described her experience when seeking help. After finding herself at rock bottom, she made the brave decision to go to the hospital emergency department for help. After waiting for six hours, she received a curt response from the first doctor she saw: “I know what you’re here for, and I know what you’re all about. You’re not getting any drugs from me, so you should just leave.” This devastating experience kept her from seeking help again for a long time.

Shine a Light on Stigma

MetaStar’s two tenets related to the reduction of stigma are simple:

  1. Knowing, understanding, and empathizing with those with SUD helps defuse the negative impact of stigma.
  2. Words matter.

Not everyone has the opportunity or comfort level to get to know someone who has experienced SUD. Through our work with the Superior Health Quality Alliance’s Shine a Light on Stigma campaign, we’re able to bridge that gap. We offer informative, frank and action-oriented videos and podcasts to help people recognize their own prejudices and learn how to change them, humanize those struggling with SUD, and evolve the language we all use in discussing SUD.

Words matter. Using patient-friendly, person-centered language is a critical step in reducing stigma. For example, referring to “a person with substance abuse disorder” conveys an entirely different message and tone than labeling this same individual an “alcoholic,” “addict,” or “drug abuser.” The former suggests the person has a problem that can be addressed; the latter implies the person is the problem. By using person-centered language, you can show respect and kindness to people who may need it the most.

Take the pledge to reduce stigma

Because stigma is public health challenge, it requires community support to change it. That’s why we ask people and organizations to pledge to use appropriate, empathetic language and encourage others to do so, as well. We’re proud that people from across the nation have joined us, and the number continues to grow. We’ll continue our efforts throughout National Recovery Month and throughout the year, because changing stigma happens one conversation at a time.


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