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Stigma and Discrimination – National Institute on Drug Abuse

Learn more about preferred language for talking about drug use and addiction.
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The stigma against people with substance use disorders is a set of negative attitudes and stereotypes that can create barriers to treatment and make these conditions worse.1 Although substance use disorders are chronic, treatable medical conditions, studies show people who have them often face stigma and discrimination in part because others do not understand these disorders or how they can be effectively treated.
Many people do not know that a substance use disorder is the result of changes in the brain that make drug use compulsive (difficult or impossible to stop without adequate support).2 Some people with severe substance use disorders may become aggressive, lie, or steal to support their drug problem or during withdrawal. These behaviors may alienate them even further from family, friends, and society and reinforce certain negative stereotypes around substance use.1 Importantly, the compulsive behaviors and brain changes in substance use disorders are not necessarily permanent. People can and do recover, especially with the help of treatment.3,4
There are many reasons why a person may be more susceptible to substance use disorders, including genetic and social factors that may be beyond their control.2 Still, many people see addiction as a personal or moral failure.5 As a result, people may feel fear and anger toward someone with a substance use disorder, even if they are a friend or family member.6 For many, it can be hard to see – and help – the individual behind the illness.
Commonly used terms referring to people with addiction often reflect the misconception that their drug use and related behaviors are a choice, rather than a compulsion, and that they are to blame for their medical condition. Studies show that terms like “junkie” and “addict” feed negative biases and dehumanize people.7,8 Research shows that language can even sway clinicians’ attitudes. In one study, clinicians rated a person described as a “substance abuser” as more worthy of blame and punishment than someone described as “having a substance use disorder.”9
Treating drug use as a criminal activity may also contribute to the stereotype of people who use drugs as being dangerous and a risk to society. It can further marginalize disadvantaged groups. For example, in the United States, punitive policies disproportionately affect Black people and communities of color, who are more likely to be arrested for illegal drug use.10,11 Black people were nearly four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people in 2018, even though the two groups use the drug at similar rates.12
 People may increase their substance use. People with substance use disorders may already feel guilt and may blame themselves for their illness.25 They may have self-stigma, or adopt negative attitudes towards themselves around their substance use.26 These feelings of shame and isolation may in turn reinforce drug-seeking behavior.27
Every person in our society can play a role in reducing stigma and discrimination against people with substance use disorders—from health professionals and addiction researchers to the general public and those directly affected by drug and alcohol problems.
NIDA’s research on the biomedical and environmental factors around substance use and addiction contributes to an evidence-based understanding of substance use disorders. This helps bust myths and upend stereotypes and promotes appropriate treatment and services. NIDA also conducts and supports research into stigma’s causes and effects, and interventions that work to confront it.
NIDA. 2022, March 25. Kratom. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/kratom
NIDA. “Kratom.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 25 Mar. 2022, https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/kratom
NIDA. Kratom. National Institute on Drug Abuse website. https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/kratom. March 25, 2022
The emergency and referral resources listed above are available to individuals located in the United States and are not operated by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). NIDA is a biomedical research organization and does not provide personalized medical advice, treatment, counselling, or legal consultation. Information provided by NIDA is not a substitute for professional medical care or legal consultation.
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