Understanding the Impact of Stigma

Most of us know someone affected by addiction. Statistics on overdose-related deaths show us that the opioid crisis is affecting Canadians from all walks of life. But those affected continue to feel stigmatized. Stigma can have a major impact on the quality of life of people who use substances, experience problem gambling or other addictions, people in recovery and their families. It can also prevent people from getting help.

It can also reduce the quality of help people receive and make their condition worse. There are ways we can all help reduce stigma and it is important that we do so.

the word stigma spelled out in magazine clippings

Defining stigma—Stigma is negative attitudes/beliefs about a group of people due to their circumstances in life. Stigma involves discrimination and prejudice. It also involves negative judging/labeling, or stereotyping.

There are three main kinds of stigma that people who use substances, experience problem gambling or other addictions, their families and loved ones meet:

  • Social stigma
    • having negative attitudes towards people who use substances, experience problem gambling or other addictions, or their loved ones
    • using negative labels in everyday conversation and in the media
    • showing negative images of people who use substances, experience problem gambling or other addictions, or of their families
    • ignoring people with a substance use disorder, problem gambling, other addiction, or their families
  • Structural stigma
    • social stigma from people who offer services to the public such as: first responders, health care professionals, and government representatives
    • can involve ignoring people affected by substance use, problem gambling or other addictions, or by not taking their requests seriously
    • not connecting people with health/social services because of their substance use, problem gambling or other addictions
    • designing health and social services in ways that enhance stigma, such as withholding health or other services until substance use, problem gambling or other addiction is better managed
  • Self-Stigma
    • internalizing social and structural stigma:
    • people take the negative messages they see about people who use substances, problem gambling or other addiction, and/or their families and apply it to themselves

Why Stigma Matters—Stigma can have a major impact on the quality of life of people who use substances, experience problem gambling or other addictions, people in recovery, and/or their families. They report that the structural stigma they meet from healthcare and social services is a major barrier to receiving core services many take for granted. Stigma can affect peoples’ ability to find housing and jobs, which, in turn affects overall health and quality of life.
When people who use substances, experience problem gambling or other addictions, meet stigma in the health system, it reduces the quality of care they receive. It also makes the person less likely to follow through on a treatment program, out of fear of facing stigma again. Stigma prevents people from receiving the help they need. It can also prevent the people who use substances, experience problem gambling or other addictions, and their loved ones from seeking the help they need.

When someone faces stigma, they can feel:

  • anger
  • fear
  • rejection
  • isolated
  • hopelessness
  • suicidal
  • shame
  • distress
  • devalued
  • lonely
  • grief
  • loss of control

If someone has experienced social or structural stigma they are less likely to reach out for help again.

How You Can Help—The most important step we can all take to reduce stigma is to talk about substance use, substance use disorders, problem gambling or other addictions and the people who experience them. We need to be able to talk openly, respectfully and compassionately.

We can:

  • educate ourselves about substance use disorders
  • avoid using slang and derogatory language such as addict or junkie
  • use language that expresses care and concern, rather than judgment
  • remember that substance use disorders are a medical condition, deserving of care just like any other
  • use language that promotes that recovery is possible
  • speak up when someone is being treated, or spoken to/about, in a disrespectful manner

Adapted from: Government of Canada