The Stigma Surrounding Substance Use Disorders: How Can We Help?


Why do people start to use drugs and continue to use them? Some might say that they bring a sense of reprieve in lives filled with stress and despair, others might argue for their pain reduction benefits, and there are even people who believe that they function better when under the influence of certain drugs. Substance abusers all started somewhere, but I’m 100% certain that these people didn’t just stumble upon some type of drug and think to themselves, “Let me completely turn my life upside down just because.”

This video from the National Institute on Drug Abuse sums up why and how so many people get addicted to drugs:


Those who have made the decision to start abusing drugs are just as human as anybody else. Making judgements about these people without any prior knowledge about how they got to the point of addiction is futile. This contributes to a problematic stigma that surrounds drug addiction. In a society that puts so much pressure on all of us to compete with one another for a bigger piece of the economic pie, it can take just one life-changing event to begin a downturn into drug addiction.

How often have you heard someone refer to substance abusers as losers, junkies, dope fiends, or crackheads? I’ve heard it in conversations with my own family, and those cousins of mine who are the victims of this labeling tell me one of two things; either they’re simply “fuck ups” who can’t get out of their own way, or that they are hopeless and without anyone to support them. The fact is, by ostracizing substance abusers to the outskirts of our society, we are advancing the problem, not just shutting it out of our daily lives.

Here are some examples of people who believe this stigma:

Similar to the views of poverty, there is a widely held belief that substance abusers have no one to blame but themselves. Addiction is a brain disease just like any other mental health illness.  It rewires your brain into wanting nothing else but the drug that provides an escape from reality. The initial decision to start rewiring-brainusing drugs is surely a poor one, but instead of shutting these people out and putting them behind bars, why not help cure them?

In a study published in the US National Library of Medicine, they explain what effect prison sentences have on inmates who were locked up for drugs:

“Former inmates return to environments that strongly trigger relapse to drug use and put them at risk for overdose.”

cycle-of-addictsOften, those incarcerated for drug offenses fall into a cycle that people rarely escape from. The expectation is for jail time to expel an addict’s need for the drug. However, without a support system and knowledge about how to avoid relapse, it is illogical to think that these people will completely stop using drugs on their own.

There are other ways for our government to stop the persistence of drug abuse. For example, Seattle’s LEAD program (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) is shying away from throwing drug abusers in jail, and actually connecting them to services that will help end their addiction. Without the threat of jail time, this program has made huge progress in not only reducing the persistence of drug addiction in Seattle, but also  in combatting the stigma surrounding drug addiction. It’s a model for how we can address the issue in the future. If we can implement more programs like these, we will be well on our way to alleviating the effects that drugs currently have on the US.


We can all have a role in fighting the stigma of drug addiction. It all starts with how we treat those that we know have an issue. Instead of referring to them by negative denominations like the ones I discussed before, we can use more neutral terms that make addiction seem like less of a personal problem and more like a real disease. If we can stop making these people feel like they are outcasts, then we can figure out effective ways to assimilate these people back into society without wasting American tax dollars on court fees and incarceration. america-pills

Listen to my podcast that goes more in depth on how stigma affects substance abusers:



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