Most of us know someone affected by substance use. 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, or negative attitudes or beliefs, can have a major impact on the quality of life of people who use drugs, people in recovery and their families.

It can 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.

On this page

Defining stigma

Stigma is negative attitudes and beliefs about a group of people due to their circumstances in life. Stigma involves discrimination and prejudice. It also involves negative:

  • judging
  • labeling
  • isolating or
  • stereotyping

There are three main kinds of stigma that people who use drugs, their families and loved ones meet:

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

Why Stigma Matters

Stigma can have a major impact on the quality of life of:

  • people who use drugs
  • people in recovery
  • families of people who use drugs

They report that the structural stigma they meet from health care and social services is a major barrier to receiving core services many of us take for granted. Stigma can affect peoples’ ability to find housing and jobs, which in turn affects their overall health and quality of life.

When people who use drugs 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 they will face stigma again.

Stigma prevents people who use drugs from receiving the help they need. It can also prevent the people who use drugs and their loved ones from seeking the help they need.

When someone faces stigma, they can feel:

  • fear
  • anger
  • blame
  • shame
  • rejection
  • hopelessness
  • grief
  • distress
  • suicidal
  • isolated
  • devalued
  • lonely
  • 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
  • people who experience them

We need to talk:

  • openly
  • respectfully
  • compassionately

We can:

  • learn about substance use disorder and educate ourselves about the medical condition
  • speak to the person first, before we talk about their substance use
  • avoid using slang and derogatory language such as:
    • addict
    • junkie
  • use language that expresses care and concern, rather than judgement
  • remember that substance use disorders are a medical condition, deserving of care just like any other
  • use language that acknowledges and promotes the fact that recovery from substance use disorders is possible
  • speak up when we hear or witness someone being treated, or spoken to or about, in a disrespectful manner

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