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Why is There Such a Stigma With Substance Use and Addiction?

substance use

Why is There Such a Stigma With Substance Use and Addiction?

**CW: Use of derogatory terms referring to addiction users 

The stigma surrounding people with substance use and addiction is still much too prevalent in our society. Untreated drug and alcohol use has led to tens of thousands of deaths each year and has profoundly impacted the lives of many more people. Even though healthcare in many North American countries has adequate resources for managing addiction, like medications for opioid and alcohol use disorder, they are not being used as often as they could be. In addition, many people who would find these tools beneficial may feel apprehensive about them and do not seek them out. This occurs due to the stigma associated with people who struggle with substance use and addiction.

What Is Stigma?

Stigma is a series of negative beliefs that society or our culture has about a topic or group of people. The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified stigma as a significant cause of discrimination and exclusion, leading to human rights abuse. 

For the person who is experiencing stigma, they may be viewed as less than due to their actual or perceived health status. In addition, stigma is not often based on facts but instead on assumptions, preconceptions, and generalizations. As a result, it could be reduced or prevented via education. 

All in all, stigma creates prejudice, avoidance, rejection, and discrimination against people who have a trait deemed socially undesirable. For drug use, people are viewed as engaging in culturally marginalized behaviors.

In general, loved ones and the public can negatively affect drug use. Some people may even use derogatory terms like “junkie,” “alcoholic,” or “crackhead.” These types of labels will perpetuate stigma.

What Are Some Common Types of Stigma?


  • When someone internalizes the negative messages they receive about people using drugs, they apply them to themselves.

Social stigma

  • Negative attitudes, labels, images in the media, or actions towards people who use drugs or towards their loved ones
  • Speaking about addiction as if it’s a choice
  • Judgment and discrimination from others

Structural stigma

  • Policies in social services and the health industry that perpetuate stigma; for example, not providing services until the drug use is better managed
  • When healthcare providers or first responders are helping people affected by drug use but not taking them as seriously
  • Workplace policies that create harm and may unconsciously encourage people to hide their drug use. 
  • Not connecting people to health or social services due to their drug use results in poor quality of care when these services are accessed.

Wondering how a mental health counselor can help? 

Why Does Substance Use Become an Addiction?

Substance use is unique to each person and how it impacts people depends on various factors. Addiction and substance use are often connected to someone’s life experience, mental health history, and behavior patterns. Addiction can also result from dependence due to physical changes in the brain that contribute to cravings and withdrawal symptoms. In essence, some people who use substances will be more prone to addiction, and it isn’t a choice. In addition, quitting can be extremely challenging even with proper support. 

Addiction is not a choice.

To elaborate more about addiction not being a choice, we want to delve into this misconception. People cannot simply stop using drugs whenever they want. Addiction can be a result of the following:

  • Traumatic life events and chronic stress
  • Factors that come out of a person’s environmental 
  • A person’s mental health, like their emotions, thoughts, feelings, and severe mental illness.
  • Genetics

Some people might try drugs once or use them on occasion. However, some use drugs more often, occasionally to deal with trauma or unbearable pain. Essentially, no matter how it manifests, no one chooses to become addicted to substances. Furthermore, addiction and physical dependence can make it difficult to stop using drugs even when it’s negatively impacting you or your loved ones. However, recovery is a possibility and is unique to the individual.

What Groups Are the Most Stigmatized?

Most often, the following groups are the most stigmatized:

  • People who use illegal drugs like crack and heroin
  • Those who take methadone
  • People who take drugs often
  • Women, especially if they have children or are pregnant
  • Those with a lower socio-economic status
  • Young people or older adults 
  • Indigenous people

**Note: This language features gender dichotomously as that is what is indicated in the research we found. 

How Can You Reduce the Stigma Associated With Addiction?

There are various ways that you can reduce stigma:


Education is essential to minimizing stigma. This can be done through teaching students, health care providers, professionals, and the public. It is necessary to mention why people develop issues with substance use. In addition, you can address any biases or inaccurate portrayals in the media. Finally, it’s essential to view people with substance use issues as human beings. 

Make Substance Abuse Issues More Personal

You can have someone who has experienced substance use issues and the discrimination that goes along with it and have them speak about it. It’s essential to show a variety of perspectives and that people with substance use problems come from any background.

Substance Use and Addiction In Summary 

Stigma can negatively affect various aspects of an individual’s life. For instance, it can violate their human rights, lead to job loss, create negative feelings about themselves, cause someone to avoid or want to avoid treatment, and cause them to continue using substances. It is essential to fight against the stigma that accompanies substance use so that people can access the care they require and improve their mental health.  

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