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Those with substance use disorders (SUDs) often face stigma and discrimination despite the fact that SUDs are chronic and treatable medical conditions. That’s often why those who need treatment may not pursue care or, when they do, they may receive lower quality care or not be taken seriously by some medical providers. Stigma is pervasive and pernicious, but there are ways to overcome it. 

This article will discuss the impact of stigma and discrimination on those with SUD and touch on ways to overcome stigma.

What Is Stigma?

Stigma is a set of negative beliefs or attitudes held about particular identities. This can include hurtful opinions about individuals because of their race, sexuality, gender, or mental health conditions. It is socially influenced and can be unconsciously learned through modeled behavior. These beliefs can be held by a group or individual and can be built and stem from judgments, generalizations, and assumptions. In other words, stigma occurs in many levels of society. 

Organizations can implement stigma as a part of their culture by positioning their image against a certain group or promoting one aspect of identity as better than another. Consider the modern standard for feminine beauty as shown on television, billboards, and in magazines. This standard is set at the organizational level and vilifies bodies that do not conform to what they are advertising as normal.  

Stigma may also be applied by association, kind of like catching germs from someone nearby. An example here is the idea that a young man who spends time with another person who used to engage in risky behaviors must also be engaging in those behaviors and is therefore assumed to be a bad influence. Nothing is factually known about this person other than one member of his social group who may or may not still engage in risky activities. Yet, he has been branded negatively and is now viewed and stigmatized that way by members of his community. 

Who Faces Stigma?

Marginalized groups such as people of color, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, or women are the most likely to face stigma. People dealing with addiction also face stigmas that can lead to discrimination in care. In fact, individuals can stigmatize themselves by buying into socially constructed ideas about their personal values. This can have a profound impact, creating barriers to care when there need be none. In the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, self-stigma is associated with feelings of shame that come about when stigmas are internalized.

How Stigma Affects People with SUD

Stigma can have long-lasting mental health effects. Stigma surrounding addiction and mental health can cause discrimination in care for those dealing with SUD. This takes place in two ways:

#1. Care Is Not Sought Due to Fear of Stigma

Some individuals will be inhibited from seeking care due to their fear of being stigmatized and/or discriminated against by the members of their community and medical health professionals. Stigma reduces individuals in status, minimizing their contributions and abilities. Facing stigma at home, in the workplace, or while seeking care can be tremendously negatively impactful. West Coast Recovery Centers (WCRC) is committed to providing stigma-free care.

#2. Care Is Compromised Due to Stigmatization and Discrimination

Unfortunately, some healthcare providers do discriminate when it comes to providing quality care to those dealing with substance use disorder and addiction. For this reason, it is important to conduct research and get to know a facility when seeking care. Look for facilities that are designed with addiction in mind and that also deal with comorbid mental health disorders. Finding care that is curated to your needs will decrease your odds of facing lower-quality care.

Overcoming Stigma

Education is the number one way to combat stigma because it works to correct assumptions and core beliefs based on a fallacy. Being informed reduces your risk of harming yourself or others through negatively held beliefs, and it can also help you correct those around you who are holding beliefs not based on truth. Continuing to talk about addiction and experiencing it first-hand can work to disseminate information and break down discrimination. 

In addition, consider the language you use, as the way we speak reveals our beliefs. Take note of negative wording or wording that singles out individuals or groups. Reassess the implications of those words as well as their roots. Why are you using them? Are they necessary, useful, and kind? If not, what is your attachment to them? Here is where educating yourself comes back into play. Take the time to examine your beliefs through your language and see what you find. You might find you are making statements that do not reflect your core beliefs, accidentally stigmatizing others in the process as well. 

Stigma is a set of deeply held beliefs about members of society that can be based on race, sexuality, gender, mental health conditions, and addiction. It can become a barrier to care for addiction in two ways. The first is through discrimination, which impacts the quality of care. The second is by inhibiting the individual who needs care from seeking it because they fear being stigmatized and discriminated against. West Coast Recovery Centers is staffed with medical health professionals who are committed to providing quality care regardless of identity or origin. Our care is personalized to help you on your road to recovery. To learn more about our stigma-free treatment options, call (760) 492-6509 today.

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