By: Katie Kloss
Untreated drug and alcohol use needlessly contributes to tens of thousands of deaths every year in the US. Although substance use disorders (SUD) are a treatable health conditions, just like high blood pressure or diabetes, many are quick to place blame solely on the individual rather than taking the time to examine other factors that may be at play, such as trauma, comorbidities, genetic predisposition, or increased tolerance to a prescribed medication.
According to a survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), about 5.1 million (roughly 1 in 7 or 15%) young adults aged 18 to 25 and about 14.2 million (roughly 1 in 15 or 6.6%) adults aged 26 and older had a substance use disorder in 2018. Meanwhile, an estimated 331,000 young adults (about 6.3% of those who needed it) aged 18 to 25 and an estimated 1.9 million adults aged 26 and older (about 12.9% of those who needed it) received substance treatment at a specialized facility that year.
Factors such as lack of access to health insurance and affordable treatment options certainly impact these statistics, but it’s impossible to ignore the significant role stigma plays in perpetuating addiction. For example, 16% of survey respondents who needed and perceived a need for treatment but did not receive treatment at a specialty facility cited concerns of negative repercussions at work, and another 14.9% cited concerns of negative opinions from their community.
Whether it stems from personal, familial, religious, or cultural beliefs, stigma continues to keep addiction and substance misuse shrouded in a veil of shame and secrecy. Despite being classified and widely accepted as a disease by the medical community for several decades, the stigma still persists at every level, including well-intentioned healthcare providers who may lack specialized training or even possess their own implicit biases that often lead to substandard care.
Education and awareness continue to be our greatest weapons against stigma. We can educate ourselves so that we can in turn educate others. We can be mindful about the language we use to talk about people who are dealing with substance misuse and choose words that promote understanding and compassion rather than stigma and stereotypes. We can humanize and normalize addiction as a valid medical condition with treatment options. We can continue to shine a light on the issue so that fewer people will have to suffer in silence.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline (English/Español 800-662-4357 // TTY 800-487-4889)
Paquette, C. E., Syvertsen, J. L., & Pollini, R. A. (2018). Stigma at every turn: Health services experiences among people who inject drugs. The International journal on drug policy, 57, 104–110. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2018.04.004
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2019). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. PEP19-5068, NSDUH Series H-54). Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/