Stigma is when a specific group of people or place face discrimination, and stigma is often common when speaking about individuals who struggle with substance use disorder (National Institute on Drug Abuse[NIDA], 2021). Some common misconceptions regarding these individuals are they are aggressive, unable to engage in their treatment, and are responsible for their substance use. These misconceptions often stem from substance use being associated with moral failings rather than a life-long disorder that can improve, often with treatment.  

One reason as to why how stigma can negatively impact these individuals is it can discourage them from seeking treatment (Hadland et al., 2018; Yang et al., 2018). Another reason is that these stigmatizing views lead to the development of stereotypes, which cause those who do not have substance use to experience feelings such as anger, fear, and a desire to stay away from individuals with substance use. These stereotypes can also increase the shame and guilt those with substance use may already feel.  

There are ways to help decrease the stigma regarding substance use. One way is to adjust the language that is being used when discussing those who struggle with substance use. For example, instead of referring to a person as an “addict,” try referring to the person as a “person with substance use,” since the latter presents the person as someone who “has” a problem rather than a person who “is” the problem (Hadland et al., 2018).  

Another way is to remember that no one chooses to have a substance use disorder. This can be explained by how dopamine is the “feel-good” hormone, and when the brain experiences it due to a specific behavior, it wants to keep engaging in that behavior to continue experiencing the good feeling (Indiana University Health, 2023). Therefore, people develop dependency on substances because their brains are rewired to crave the good feelings via the dopamine they got from engaging in substance use. In addition, there are risk factors that increase a person’s chance of developing substance use, such as genetics and environment. 

Keeping these facts in mind may be helpful in decreasing the stigma surrounding substance use, and, in turn, help encourage those with substance use disorder to seek support if they are ready to enter recovery. 

 by Marleny Rodriguez