Stigma Related to Substance Use Disorders

2 min read · 4 sections

The Stigma of Addiction

Stigma is defined as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” All too often, there tends to be stigma around behaviors and actions that are viewed as different and outside the acceptable norm. 

An example of this are the negative misconceptions that surround people struggling with substance abuse, often stemming from behavioral symptoms. Junkie. Stoner. Drunkard. Crackhead. Tweeker. These are just some of the many dismissive terms commonly used to describe individuals with substance use disorders. 

Research has shown that addiction is more highly stigmatized than other health conditions. One recent study, conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, found that drug addiction is viewed much more negatively than mental illness. Findings from the survey include:1

  • 90% are unwilling to have a person with drug addiction marry into their family, compared to 59% for a person with mental illness.
  • 62% will work with someone who has a mental illness, whereas only 22% will work with someone who has a drug addiction. 
  • 64% feel that employers should be able to deny employment to people with a drug addiction, compared to 25% for people with mental illness.
  • 43% are opposed to giving drug addicts equivalent health insurance benefits to those afforded the public at-large, while only 21% are opposed to giving the same benefits to people with mental illness.
  • 54% believe landlords should be allowed to deny housing to a person with drug addiction, compared to only 15% for persons with mental illness.
  • 3 in 10 believe that recovery from drug addiction is impossible.

Consequences of Addiction Stigma

Instead of addressing addiction as the public health problem that it is, we tend to treat substance use disorders as moral and criminal issues. This is especially true for addiction to illicit drugs, which we perceive more negatively than addiction to legal substances such as alcohol or cigarettes. 

This stigma is very problematic, as subsequent actions (such as the criminalization of substance-using behaviors) only exacerbate addiction stigma and further marginalize the people most in need of treatment.2 

For many people suffering from substance abuse, the stigma of addiction creates an additional barrier to treatment and recovery. Sadly, only a small percentage of people with addiction seek and receive treatment. 

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, over 21 million Americans were diagnosed with a substance use disorder in 2018.3 However, only 1 in 10 individuals with addiction received any form of treatment at a facility, and 60% of those who perceived a need for treatment made no effort to get treatment.4

How to Reduce the Stigma of Addiction

The more we associate shame with drug addiction, the less likely we will be as a society to change attitudes and get people the help they need. We must address media biases and inaccuracies concerning addiction, and the public needs to be better educated to understand addiction is a treatable condition.5

These goals can be accomplished through various strategies, including public service announcements that portray people with substance use disorders as human beings suffering from a health issue. There is also a need for policy changes that will better support people with drug addiction, including an increased access to professional treatment programs.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, please know that there are several ways to get help. Contact a treatment center today to learn about the substance abuse treatment programs that can meet your specific needs.


  1. Barry, C.L., McGinty, E.E., Pescosolido, B.A., & Goldman, H.H. (2014). Stigma, Discrimination, Treatment Effectiveness and Policy Support: Comparing Public Views about Drug Addiction with Mental Illness. Psychiatric Services, 65(10), 1269-1272.
  2. Ahern, J., Stuber, J., & Galea, S. (2007). Stigma, discrimination and the health of illicit drug users. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 88(2-3), 188-196.
  3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2019). Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables, Table 5.5A.
  4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2019). Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables, Table 5.37-5.39.
  5. 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, 107(1), 39-50.
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