S is for Stigma

Taking a Closer Look at the Consequences of Stigma

Our vision at Renascent is that all people, families and loved ones impacted by addiction will have timely access to treatment. But one of the biggest barriers to treatment is stigma. 

S – What is Stigma?

Stigma is any attitude, belief or behaviour that discriminates against people. 

Stigma falls into three categories: Self stigma, when someone internalizes negative messages about people who use alcohol and/or drugs and applies them to themselves; Social stigma, the negative attitudes or behaviours towards people who use drugs or towards their friends and family, negative labels and images in conversation and in the media and talking about addiction like it is a choice; and Structural stigma, the policies in health and social services that increase stigma. (Source: Health Canada)

When it comes to substance use, stigma impacts people with lived and living experience, as well as their families. Stigma often comes out in the form of derogatory language that shames and belittles people. Such language can lead to a cycle of behaviours and attitudes that isolate and marginalize people who use substances. 

Read more about language and stigma in our post Speaking of Language.

prejudice – negative attitudes

discrimination – negative responses

prejudice + discrimination = stigma

T – How it affects Treatment 

Stigma is a significant barrier to the health and wellness of people who have challenges with substance use, affecting access to care and even a loss of hope that recovery is possible. 

You can read about it in the words of our Renascent Alumni:

“I knew I needed help but was extremely worried that my drinking problem would be uncovered which would negatively impact my career and bring shame to me and my family.” – Susan Jones, Renascent Alumni

“Stigma was a barrier for me. I didn’t feel comfortable telling my employer about my addiction because I thought I would be judged.” – Patrick, Renascent Alumni

Simply put, stigma stops people from seeking the treatment they need.

I – Stigma’s Impact

The further effects of stigma are far-reaching and in addition to reducing access to care, they can also include the following:

  • Believing the negative stereotypes (Self-stigma)
  • Avoid seeking help, keeping secrets
  • Social isolation
  • Depression, loss of hope for recovery, suicide

G – Give it a second thought

One helpful way to recognize attitudes and actions that stigmatize conditions like substance use disorders is to use the STOP criteria.

Ask yourself if what you hear:

Stereotypes people with substance use disorders or mental health conditions?

Trivializes or belittles people and/or the condition itself?

Offends people by insulting them?

Patronizes people by treating them as if they were not as good as other people?

M – Make a difference

What are some other ways you can make a difference?
You can encourage people to seek help for their substance use disorder. Recognize that private shame is fed and reinforced by public stigma.

If you think that you, your friend, family member, colleague, or employee might need help, call us today. We can help you identify patterns of problem use across substances, and help you understand the available treatment options. Like all mental health issues, substance use disorders occur along a spectrum that ranges from mild to severe. Untreated substance use and addictive disorders tend to progress in severity over time, becoming increasingly resistant to treatment. The best time to seek help is now.

Learn more in our post The True Face of Drug and Alcohol Addiction

A – Take Action

Additional measures you can take to help reduce stigma:

  • Imagine what it would be like to be a person who faces stigma as someone who has a substance use disorder or struggles with their mental health. Support others as they make positive changes in their lives.
  • Be aware of the labels that you use and your own attitudes and judgements. Respect people and treat them with dignity and don’t define any person by their drug use.
  • Speak out against stigmatizing material in the media, and speak up about stigma to friends, family and colleagues and support organizations that fight stigma.

Source material and further reading:

Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction – Stigma
Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction Online Learning: Overcoming Stigma
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health – Addressing Stigma 

About the Authors

Renascent Staff
The staff at Renascent is passionate about helping people with substance addictions so they can reach their full recovery – with compassion, respect, empathy and understanding. Our staff includes our counsellors, all of whom have lived experience of addiction and recovery.