The concept of stigma describes the powerful, negative perceptions commonly associated with substance use and addiction. Stigma has the potential to negatively affect a person’s self-esteem, damage relationships with loved ones, and prevent those suffering from addiction from accessing treatment. They can feel pushed to the outskirts of society and may lose touch with their community and family and experience profound loneliness and isolation. When a person does not have social ties or a person to talk to, they are less likely to reach out for healthcare or treatment. They are also more likely to be depressed and may hide their drug use from health care providers to avoid further stigma and drug shaming. The mental health consequences of isolation can fuel even more drug use, leading to further isolation, and ultimately a vicious cycle that is hard to be break out of.

There are many reasons why people develop mental health and substance use problems, but regardless of why and how they develop, these problems are health problems—just like cancer, arthritis, diabetes and heart attacks. And stigma has become a public health issue — it contributes to high rates of death, incarceration, and mental health concerns among substance use populations, and whether we realize it or not, we are all affected by it.

Did you know?

  • ​1 person in 5 in Canada (over 6 million people) will have a mental health problem during their lifetime.
  • 1 in 7 Canadians aged 15 and older (about 3.5 million people) have alcohol-related problems;
  • 1 in 20 (about 1.5 million) have cannabis-related concerns;
  • Use of at least one of five illicit drugs (cocaine or crack, speed, ecstasy, hallucinogens or heroin) was reported by 2% of Canadians (458,000)
  • Mental health and substance use problems affect people of all ages, education and income levels, religions, cultures and types of jobs.

It’s likely that you, a family member, or friend will have a substance use or mental health problem at some time in your life. Yet in spite of that, there is still an overall perception in society today, that those who are inflicted with this disorder are bad people, deviants, immoral and lack self-control.

Stigma affects all of us – and nearly everyone has felt stigmatized or has stigmatized others at some point in time.

Effective ways for individuals to help reduce stigma include:

  • Offering compassionate support.
  • Displaying kindness to people in vulnerable situations.
  • Listening while withholding judgment.
  • Seeing a person for who they are, not what drugs they use.
  • Doing your research; learning about substance use disorders and how they work.
  • Treating people with disorders with dignity and respect.
  • Avoiding hurtful labels.
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