Why focus on Stigma?
Stigma around substance use is expressed in big and small ways through words and actions–and it puts shame and blame on people who use substances. Stigma causes harmful attitudes, judgment, rejection, and fear, often built on inaccurate thoughts about people who use substances being dangerous or at fault for their condition. This treatment by others makes it much harder for people to talk about what they’re going through or seek support.
Stigma is a barrier to people staying safe and healthy.
People use substances for many reasons. Not all substance use is problematic. But many substances can cause physical and/or psychological dependence, especially if used regularly. Substance use disorder is a chronic condition–like diabetes, depression, or heart disease. It changes the way your brain works, making it very difficult to stop using. Over time, regular substance use can lead to negative legal, financial, employment and health consequences.
If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use, it is not your fault or theirs.
- makes it harder to ask for help
- prevents people from feeling empathy or offering support
- stops people from getting clinically-proven, effective medication for treatment
- blames and shames people for their substance use disorder
- keeps people from seeking the medical care they need
- leads to isolation
- blocks people from recognizing there is a problem
- keeps people from carrying naloxone
- makes it harder to engage in harm reduction that is needed to keep people safe and alive
- causes discrimination in healthcare, employment, education, and housing
The words we use shape how we think. What if culturally, little by little, we could shift the way we talk about substance use? What if more people had a slightly better understanding, and felt more empathy toward people who use substances? What if we could reduce judgment, negative attitudes, and fear toward people with substance use disorder?
When we hear the phrases “person who uses drugs” or “person who uses substances,” they paint less of an image in our minds than labels like “addict,” or “junkie.” By putting the person first, and then describing a behavior in plain terms, we can remove the judgment and stereotyping that are baked into those other labels.
For more on stigma and language, visit:
Challenge stereotypes by listening to, and sharing, stories of real experiences.
We are all humans, we all know hardship, and most of us have either used substances or care about people who have. Hearing stories of real people, that center on their lived experiences, can help to humanize, build compassion, and fight stereotypes we have about people who use substances.
Some materials you may want to watch, listen to, or read include:
Points North Institute has launched an initiative using documentary-style films and community conversations to spark a discussion about the impact of substance use on communities and individuals in Maine. Request a film screening and discussion event for your community.
Be a part of the solution.
When we choose to help, we are not only fighting our own stigma, but we influence those around us as well. Would you recognize the signs of an overdose, and would you call 9-1-1 if you thought it was needed? Do you carry naloxone with you always, and do you feel confident using it? Watch a 10-minute video on responding to an opioid overdose from Maine Access Points.
Carrying naloxone (also known by brand name Narcan™) can save a life. But even carrying naloxone is about reducing stigma: the more of us who carry naloxone, the more normal it becomes, the less stigmatized it can be. You can buy naloxone without a prescription from Maine pharmacies, or use GetMaineNaloxone.org to find naloxone near you.
In 2022, over 2,250 reported overdoses were reversed by community members using naloxone in Maine. Make sure you are able to help if you ever witness someone experiencing an overdose. It could save their life.
Fight the knee-jerk reaction to judge.
This video from CMC: Foundation for Change illustrates how sometimes behavior that we don’t understand can actually make sense when we learn the why behind it. As humans, we make judgments all the time. But if we can check that judgment and seek to understand the reasons why someone is using substances, we open up the possibility for compassion and positive change.
Support proven-effective harm reduction strategies and treatment.
Stigma around substance use includes myths and misunderstanding around the tools and strategies that actually help. Many people falsely believe that harm reduction encourages people to use more drugs. Data actually show that syringe service programs (SSPs, also previously known as “needle exchanges”) keep people safe and alive, and that they increase the likelihood that people will enter treatment and stop using substances, along with reducing infections of HIV and hepatitis C. But most importantly, reducing harm keeps people safe and alive.
There is also a damaging belief that using medication to treat substance use disorder is enabling or “trading one drug for another.” The reality is that medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD), also known as medication-assisted treatment (MAT), has been proven through research to be extremely effective in helping people stay stable and healthy in long-term recovery. FDA-approved medications like methadone and buprenorphine reduce overdoses and the use of illicit substances, and help people maintain recovery and stay employed or in school. Read more from the US CDC.
Recap: What can you do to fight stigma?
- Be thoughtful about the language you use; use person-first language.
- Support harm-reduction and treatment efforts that are necessary to help people.
- Consume and share stories of real people who have been impacted by substance use.
- Take action by learning the signs of an overdose, carrying naloxone, and calling 9-1-1 if you think someone may be experiencing an overdose.
- Request a film event for your community.