What is “stigma”—and how it impacts addiction.

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There are many obstacles when it comes to facing substance misuse.

Navigating withdrawal, repairing friendships and coming to terms with the aftermath of addiction.

These are examples of the hard parts we can see. Did you know there’s another challenge that goes unseen, but is felt by nearly every person battling addiction?

It’s called stigma. And it’s rooted in the myth that addiction is not a disease, but instead a choice of the person suffering (1).

What is stigma?

Stigma is a negative belief held by society about another person or group of people. Stigma exists for those in poverty, those suffering from mental health disorders, and for individuals of other, often marginalized groups. Most importantly, stigma causes judgmental, harmful beliefs that are damaging to the well-being of those stigmatized.

What exactly does stigma mean when it comes to addiction? The following beliefs are common within the stigma of people suffering from the disease of addiction:

  • It’s their fault for becoming addicted.
  • They had a choice in the matter.
  • People with substance misuse disorder are dangerous.
  • Those with substance misuse disorder can’t be trusted.
  • Those with addiction are weak-minded and/or lazy.

Data confirms these beliefs are not isolated, but held by the majority of those in the United States. Research shows more than 70 percent of Americans believe people addicted to prescription opioids lack self-discipline, while 78 percent believe people addicted to prescription opioids are to blame for their own problem (2).


How does stigma affect those suffering from addiction?

This stigma surrounding addiction comes from all angles. Strangers, friends, family members, and even healthcare workers can do harm when they take part in or act on the beliefs listed above.

Stigma is a barrier to healthcare.

A recent study analyzing ER physicians’ attitudes towards patients with addiction found that the majority had lower regard for those with substance use disorders than for patients with other behavioral health illnesses (3). Physicians in the study admitted to finding it more rewarding to treat patients with obesity, trauma, or those with COPD who smoke. In many cases, the stigma that finds its way into health settings affects the type of care those with addiction receive—often during a time when they need it most.

Stigma steals hope.

However, stigma doesn’t have to come from a doctor to be harmful. When friends and family members speak or act in ways that reinforce stigmatized beliefs, the person suffering from addiction feels great shame, judgment, and loneliness. This can come in the form of spreading gossip, offering a judgmental remark, or banishing the person from the family or friend group. These beliefs steal hope instead of offering it. And they disempower the very individuals society should be supporting and empowering most.

What can you do to end addiction stigma?

As you learn about addiction as a disease, you can play a role in ending the stigma that harms individuals suffering from substance misuse disorder.

Here are ways you can take a stand:

  • Continue learning the facts. Educate yourself on substance misuse.
  • When speaking or referring to someone suffering from the addiction, avoid terms like “addict” or “druggie”. Remember the human suffering behind the disease, and refer to them as such.
  • Speak up when you hear others using harmful language that stigmatizes addiction.
  • Browse our resources to learn how to support a friend suffering from addiction.
  • Learn how you can get involved in drug prevention programs in your school and community.

Together, little by little, we can de-stigmatize addiction.

About GameChanger

GameChanger is a Student-Powered Substance Misuse Prevention Movement connecting West Virginia students and the educators who care about them with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation to build school environments that prevent student opioid and other drug use before it starts.


  1. Reducing the Stigma of Addiction. John Hopkins Medicine. Accessed from: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/stigma-of-addiction/
  2. Kennedy-Hendricks A, Barry CL, Gollust SE, Ensminger ME, Chisolm MS, McGinty EE. Social Stigma Toward Persons With Prescription Opioid Use Disorder: Associations With Public Support for Punitive and Public Health-Oriented Policies. Psychiatric services (Washington, D.C.). 2017;68(5):462-469. Accessed from: https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ps.201600056
  3. An Exploration of Emergency Physicians’ Attitudes Toward Patients With Substance Use Disorder. Cecelia Kathleen Mendiola, BA, Giorgio Galetto, MD, and Michael Fingerhood, MD. American Society of Medicine. 2018. Accessed from: https://docs.house.gov/meetings/IF/IF14/20180321/108049/HHRG-115-IF14-20180321-SD500.pdf
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