Ending the Stigma and Why it is Important

What is Stigma?

Stigma creates the belief that certain personal characteristics or people are bad, dangerous, or weak and invalidates the person’s experiences. Stigma preserves stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination which can impact a person’s mental health, and in turn, their path to recovery (1).

Four types of Stigma

Public Stigma

When the public holds discriminatory and prejudicial beliefs towards a specific group of people—people with substance use disorder. Public stigma creates barriers for people, preventing them from accessing housing, food, education, employment (1).

Structural Stigma

The policies and the actions of institutions limit the opportunities of groups experiencing stigma. Limitations of opportunities, or rights, can be intentional or unintentional (1).


When a person from a stigmatized group internalizes the stereotype or prejudice that is spread by the public or institutions. Self-stigma can prevent a person from seeking health care services and may cause a person to hide their diagnosis out of shame or embarrassment, which can lead to isolation and a lack of social support (1).

Multiple stigma

When a person experiences stigma from more than one category above. It also important to recognize that with substance use disorder, people also face stigma through other identities they hold (houselessness, poverty, mental illness, etc.). All of these can compound to worsen health consequences and need to be recognized (1).

Why Does Stigma Matter?

Stigma creates barriers that affect a person’s treatment and recovery. Stigma can impact all realms of treatment, including (1):

  • accessing treatment
  • choice of treatment type
  • maintaining treatment.

People may avoid receiving a diagnosis of substance use disorder to prevent themselves from experiencing public stigma (1).

Stigma can also prevent a person from choosing the best treatment option for them.

Medication- assisted treatment is a highly recommended form of treatment for substance use disorder (2). People who choose medication-assisted treatment attend counseling sessions and take methadone or buprenorphine. Methadone and buprenorphine are medications that reduce cravings for opioids and help with withdrawal symptoms. This helps people to stay in treatment (2). There is stigma surrounding the use of medication to aid in the recovery of opioid use disorder (OUD) regardless of its proven effectiveness. This stigma prevents patients from receiving the best treatment option for them.

Language Matters

Language is a powerful framing tool to shape the public and individual opinions of substance use (or any other category). When we change our language to non-stigmatizing comments then we can begin to change the opinion of the public and individuals, which helps decrease barriers people experience when beginning or continuing their road to recovery through treatment.

  1. Wogen, J., & Restrepo, M. T. (2020, June). Human rights, stigma, and substance use. Health and Human Rights Journal. Retrieved September 21, 2021, from https://www.hhrjournal.org/2020/06/human-rights-stigma-and-substance-use/.

2. Medication-assisted treatment (MAT). SAMHSA. (2021, September 16). Retrieved September 21, 2021, from https://www.samhsa.gov/medication-assisted-treatment.