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Stigma and the Opioid Epidemic

It’s no secret – life isn’t perfect. Every single one of us will face challenges throughout our lives. I want you to think about one of those challenges for a moment. Perhaps you had a medical emergency. Maybe you got into some sort of trouble at school. Maybe you made the wrong decision.

Now think once more. Try to remember how you overcame this challenge. What did you do? Chances are you turned to someone for help and support, such as a loved one, a friend, a doctor or a counselor. But for an estimated 2.5 million people addicted to prescription pain relievers or heroin*, there is not enough help or support – only stigma, misconceptions and judgment.

By being aware of the following, we can more easily guide patients into treatment and recovery.

  1. Motivation isn’t enough. Opioid misuse is a medical disease, not a moral weakness. This matters when it comes to treatment. Countless illnesses are best treated with medication, and the same holds true for opioid misuse. It is a common misconception that sheer will can stop someone from using a drug. Science has proven otherwise; the most effective treatment for opioid misuse is extended treatment that includes medications like methadone. There is a lower risk of relapse using this method, and there is no other treatment that has been shown to work using the same level of evidence.

  2. Walk a mile in someone’s shoes. There are many reasons why people misuse opioids. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids – perhaps medications that were prescribed after surgery or an accident. The reasons why someone became addicted to opioids are not for us to judge. Fear of being judged is one of the reasons why people with substance use disorders are less likely to seek help or drop out of treatment. The key to recovery is support and compassion, not judgment.

  3. Words hurt. When it comes to judgment, it’s also worth noting that certain words and phrases, while commonly used, can be hurtful. For example, we’re careful to call urine test results “negative” or “positive” rather than “clean” or “dirty.” As healthcare practitioners, we counter stigma by using accurate, nonjudgmental language to describe this disorder, those it affects, and its therapy with medications. Language mirrors and perpetuates stigma.

Through the GRACE Program, Woman’s Hospital and the United Health Foundation are working to help pregnant women struggling with opioid misuse. The GRACE Program has created a network of resources to bring together doctors, social service agencies, hospitals, mental health agencies, the legal system and other community partners to aid women in their recovery. To learn more about the GRACE Program, visit

*Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2016). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. SMA 16-4984, NSDUH Series H-51). Retrieved from

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