Reduce Stigma

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Introductory Paragraph

The term “stigma” is used to represent the complex of attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and structures that interact at different levels of society (i.e., individuals, groups, organizations, systems) and manifest in prejudicial attitudes about and discriminatory practices against people with mental and substance use disorders.  Attention to stigmatizing structures of society, such as laws and regulations, enables examination of prejudice and discrimination against people with mental and substance use disorders. Discriminatory policies and practices can appear to endorse negative social norms and deepen self-stigma. [1]

Stigma often creates barriers for those needing treatment and other critical services from reaching out for assistance.  Stigma and lack of understanding impacts many in society and can be most harmful to those suffering from SUD and people in early recovery.  Reducing stigma and increasing understanding of substance use disorder improves the instances of people with SUD finding the assistance and support they need.   

Addressing stigma requires education and breaking down barriers by changing attitudes, perceptions and even language used around SUD. Recent research showed that substance use is more stigmatized than obesity and smoking tobacco. [2]

To break down the barrier of stigma we need to educate that substance use disorders are a chronic Illness and the approach for treatment should be the same as heart disease, diabetes, asthma, cancer or other illness.  

Key Information

“SAMSHA’s working definition of recovery states that recovery is “A process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.”  SAMSHA lists health, home, purpose, and community as essential dimensions of support for a life in recovery. [3] Stigma is a barrier in recovery.  When a person with substance use disorder finally reaches out for help, he or she is often met with responses that are less than helpful or are judgmental and this is often the result of stigma. Many examples of stigma are not overt and are more subtle. Stigma comes in the form of language used, pity, disdain, silence, or rejection.  Persons with mental health and substance use problems are exposed to an array of stigma components that interact to endanger their mental health. These components include stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination  [4]

Studies have shown that people with substance use disorder experience labeling, shame, and rejection from family members, friends, teachers, co-workers, supervisors, and health care professionals. This stigma can get in the way of the support that people in recovery --and early recovery especially -- need. Outside stigma can become internalized, leading people in recovery to embody and adopt inaccurate beliefs about themselves due to their exposure to external stigmatizing forces.[5]

Individual factors, including beliefs, play a large role in an individual’s decision about whether to seek treatment. The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health stated that “stigma has created an added burden of shame that has made people with SUDs less likely to come forward and seek help”   Research shows that the vast majority of people do not seek treatment because of attitudinal or belief barriers (e.g., lack of perceived need, concerns about stigma, doubts about efficacy). [6]  

Types of Stigma
There are five defined types of stigma: public, courtesy, structural, self and multiple stigmas.  Each type has an impact at different levels of society and the individual.  Understanding and having awareness of the different types of stigma can help with breaking down barriers and reinventing the road to recovery.
Self-Stigma-Shame, evaluative thoughts, and fear of enacted stigma -- prevents users from seeking prevention services, testing, and treatment. Stigma also limits employment, school enrollment, housing and access to social and safety net services for users.[7]

Public stigma -the collective public’s prejudice and discrimination toward a specific group of individuals—in this case, individual's with substance use problems. These prejudices and discriminatory actions are founded on perceptions about persons with the stigmatized conditions which causes negative behavioral and emotional responses. 
Courtesy stigma – this is “stigma by association” and involves public disapproval evoked as a consequence of associating with a stigmatized group. This may have a negative impact as those associated may distance themselves to avoid stigma. Examples are society blaming family for an individual's substance use disorder or mental health condition. 
Structural stigma – these are policies or institutional actions that restrict—whether intentionally or not—the opportunities of those with substance use disorder and mental health conditions.  This could include discriminatory behaviors, negative perceptions by leaders and institutional representatives such as those in criminal justice systems or healthcare settings.  This includes both public and private sector polices that restrict opportunities of those with drug dependence. [8]

Multiple stigma – Also may be referred to as “double stigma” and is prevalent among those who have co-occurring challenges such as mental illness, substance use disorder, homelessness and poverty. 

Stigma Around Addiction Treatment
Due to a high volume of treatment centers more focused on profit than patients, a certain stigma has developed around seeking treatment. Certain practices, however, can be seen as red flags for these unscrupulous treatment centers. Educate users seeking treatment as well as people who do patient referrals about these signs to avoid sending patients to these types of treatment centers.

Causes of Addiction Treatment Stigma

  • The High Number of Arrests for Drug Possession in the United States
  • Patient Brokering
    • This illegal practice occurs when "body brokers" make money by recruiting addicts for unethical and unscrupulous treatment facilities
  • Rampant Urinalysis Testing and Lab Abuse
    • Some sober homes around the country have found a way to make money by recruiting people for the intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) that take place at drug rehab centers. These centers charge millions of dollars in fees to insurance companies for drug urinalysis performed on patients in IOPs.
  • Unbranded Drug Rehab Websites
    • Some facilities have created unbranded websites to attract additional web traffic. These websites often try to appear like an independent source verifying that one rehab center may be better than another, when in reality that website was created by a rehab center.
  • Lack of Outcomes Data
    • The measure of substance use disorder treatment effectiveness may be more nuanced than presented by the treatment center's website. For example, if a center says it has a 90% success rate, that most likely refers to the following conditions
    • A reduction in the frequency of substance use during drug rehab treatment
    • A reduction in the amount of the substance being used during drug rehab treatment
    • Successful sobriety for a relative period of time (i.e. self-reported sobriety among patients between 3 and 6 months after treatment)
  • Drug Rehab Centers: Some Claim to Be Experts at Everything

Reducing Stigma
A 2014 literature review of programs for reducing stigma found that online education programs and face-to-face education programs were equally effective in reducing personal stigma (an individual's own attitude towards people with mental illness), but neither was effective in reducing self-stigma.[9] Other research has shown that therapeutic interventions such as group-based Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and vocational counseling produce positive outcomes for substance users suffering from self-stigma.[10]

Some suggestions for stigma-reducing language:[11]
Call it what it is: substance use disorder (or alcohol use disorder, cocaine use disorder, etc.) or substance dependence (or alcohol dependence, drug dependence, etc.). In a non-clinical environment, addiction is also acceptable.
Use "people first" language and refer to people with substance use disorder, people with drug dependence, people with addiction.
The new edition of the Associated Press style book recommends people first phrasing with the goal of separating the person from the disease.
Avoid negative terms like addict, junkie, wino, boozer, drug fiend, and bum.
Use Person-Centric Language
Those writing about mental health and addiction should strongly consider the language they use when describing those struggling with those issues. People-first language or person-centric language can influence whether the material produced is further stigmatizing to people. See Tools & Resources for a guide to using person centric language.

Words Matter! When talking to or about those with SUD be aware of language used in order to avoid using stigmatizing terms. has provided “Words Matter"- Preferred language when talking about addition.” They provide a table of stigma reducing language to act as a guide when talking about those with SUD and in recovery.[12]  Stop Stigma Now has also provided a resource for preferred vs. non-preferred language and terms to reduce stigma. [13]

Reducing Stigma surrounding Medication Assisted Treatment-

National Alliance for Medication Assisted Recovery - NAMA-R recommends the following:[14]

⦁ Speak publicly about the productive lives led by MAT patients

⦁ Establish contact with elected and appointed officials

⦁ Attend community meetings

⦁ Prepare and distribute educational material

⦁ Participate in media interviews

⦁ Create a unified voice to reach the public on all issues of concern to MAT patients

Relevant Research

Resources for research regarding reducing stigma include:

  • Ending discrimination again people with mental and substance use disorders: The Evidence for Stigma Change[15]
  • The effectiveness of interventions for reducing stigma related to substance use disorders: a systematic review [16]

Impactful Federal, State, and Local Policies

SAFE Solutions is an ever-growing platform.  Currently limited information is readily available for this section.  SAFE Project is dedicated to providing communities with the most relevant and innovative materials.  We will continue to regularly monitor and make updates accordingly with community input and subject matter expert collaboration.  Please check back soon.

Available Tools and Resources

The following organizations, associations, and agencies provide information on stigma, stigma prevention, or developing prevention campaigns. Some of the organizations that provide information on stigma may focus on mental health but also address substance abuse. Similarly, some of the resources on conducting prevention campaigns focus on substance abuse prevention rather than stigma prevention. However, the principles and processes employed by substance abuse prevention campaigns are applicable to stigma prevention campaigns.

Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network [17]
The Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network  is a nationwide, multidisciplinary resource for professionals in the addictions treatment and recovery services field, the ATTC Network raises awareness of evidence-based and promising treatment and recovery practices, builds skill to prepare the workforce to deliver state-of the-art addictions treatment and recovery services and, changes practice by incorporating these new skills into every use for the purpose of improving addictions treatment and recovery outcomes. Funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

The Advertising Council[18] The Ad Council produces, distributes, promotes, and evaluates public service communications programs. It provides information, resources, and assistance to community groups about public service campaigns.

The Anti-Stigma Project & Distorted perceptions[19] [20]The Anti-Stigma Project" fights stigma by raising consciousness, facilitating ongoing dialogues, searching for creative solutions, and educating all participants within or connected to the behavioral health community, including consumers, family members, providers, educators, and administrators. They offer online trainings regarding Stigma reduction. The Distorted Perception's initiative is a public education campaign that was created by the Anti-Stigma Project to provide facts, questions and resources to help our community understand the stigma related to mental illness and addictions. 

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) Addictions Program  [21] CAMH is Canada’s largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital. CAMH combines clinical care, research, education, policy development and health promotion to help transform the lives of people affected by mental health and addiction issues.

Community Anti-Drug Coalitions Of America (CADCA) [22]Since 1992 Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) has been training local grassroots groups, known as community anti-drug coalitions, in effective community problem-solving strategies, teaching them how to assess their local substance abuse related problems and develop a comprehensive plan to address them. 

The Higher Education Center For Alcohol, Drug Abuse, And Violence Prevention Education Development Center, Inc. [23]  Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the Higher Education Center provides support to all institutions of higher education in their efforts to address the problems related to alcohol and other drug abuse and violence.

Mental Health America  [24] Mental Health America (formerly known as the National Mental Health Association) is the country’s leading nonprofit dedicated to helping ALL people live mentally healthier lives. MHA represents a growing movement of Americans who promote mental wellness for the health and wellbeing of the nation – every day and in times of crisis.

National Alliance For The Mentally Ill (NAMI) [25] The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill is a nonprofit, grassroots, self-help, support, and advocacy organization of consumers, families, and friends of people with mental health problems. It provides education, supports increased research funding, and advocates for adequate health insurance, housing, rehabilitation, and jobs. 

National Mental Health Consumers’ Self-Help Clearinghouse [26] The Clearinghouse was the first national technical assistance center founded and run by individual's diagnosed with mental health conditions.  It is peer-run national technical assistance and resource center that fosters recovery, self-determination, and community inclusion. The Clearinghouse serves individuals with lived experience of a mental health condition, peer-run service and advocacy organizations, family members, mental health professionals and service providers, policy makers, and the public.

Stop Stigma Now A campaign to counteract the stigma and resources to help stop the stigma and prejudice directed at both the treatment and the patients.[27]

Substance Abuse And Mental Health Administration [28] SAMHSA is a Federal Government agency that seeks to target effectively substance abuse and mental health services to the people most in need and to translate research in these areas more effectively and more rapidly into the general health care system. 

Promising Practices

Best practices and barriers to Engaging People with Substance Use Disorders in Treatment[29] This guide provides stigma reducing best practices such as: “Co-location of SUD counseling and other services with primary care reduces the stigma of accessing a facility identified as treating SUDs, catches members in locations where they are more comfortable, and permits improved coordination between physical and behavioral health care.”

SAFE Project [30]SAFE Project believes there’s No Shame in getting help or in talking about mental health and addiction. The No Shame Pledge  supports the ability to get help without judgement and acknowledges commitment to saving lives by fighting the stigma. 

State Without Stigma Video[31] A public service announcement surrounding reducing stigma. 


  2. from
  4. -Corrigan P. W. “How stigma interferes with mental health care,” American Psychologist. 2004;59(7):614–625. Pp
  6. (Facing Addiction in America)
  7. LUOMA, J. B., KOHLENBERG, B. S., HAYES, S. C., BUNTING, K., & RYE, A. K. (2008). Reducing self-stigma in substance abuse through acceptance and commitment therapy: Model, manual development, and pilot outcomes. Addiction Research & Theory, 16(2), 149–165.
  9. K. M., Carron-Arthur, B., Parsons, A., & Reid, R. (2014). Effectiveness of programs for reducing the stigma associated with mental disorders. A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. World Psychiatry, 13(2), 161–175.
  10. Livingston, J. D., Milne, T., Fang, M. L., & Amari, E. (2012). The effectiveness of interventions for reducing stigma related to substance use disorders: A systematic review. Addiction (Abingdon, England), 107(1), 39–50.
  11. Social stigma and substance use: Why language matters | Smart Approaches. (n.d.). Retrieved December 5, 2019, from
  16. This study provides a systematic review of existing research that has evaluated interventions designed to reduce stigma related to substance use disorders.
  29. -