Photo Credit: Native Connections

Let’s get rid of it! 

Stigma is defined as, “a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about another group of people based on behaviors or characteristics that distinguish them from others in society.” The language of stigma is shaming and dehumanizing. It devalues a person’s worth.  

When it comes to substance use, what does it take to reduce stigma within our communities, our organizations, our families, and ourselves?  Recently, I was given the opportunity to speak on this subject to a group of people which included folks in early recovery as well as leaders of organizations that work to prevent, reduce, and educate about substance use disorders. One thing that was evident in the room was the recognition that many people do not seek help for a substance use disorder because of stigmatization. 


There are three recognized types of stigma: structural stigma, public stigma, and self-stigma.  

  • Structural stigma includes organizations such as the judicial system, law enforcement, and healthcare.  
  • Public stigma is the overarching opinion that people in the community have about marginalized communities, such as, people who struggle with substance abuse.  
  • Self-stigma is what happens when people start to believe the comments and actions that they are subjected to because of their substance use behaviors.  


It is difficult enough to ask for help. However, when a person is also subjected to language such as the examples below, it makes asking for help almost impossible.    

  • Structural: “You again? You are a waste of community resources!” 
  • Public: “What a disgrace! You bring dishonor to your family and to your community with your weak moral character!” 
  • Self: “I am worthless. Why should I try?  No one cares anyway.” 


We as providers, communities, and families must start to reconsider the way we have thought about substance use. Substance Use Disorders are brain disorders with complex and perplexing behaviors attached. There is science behind this reasoning (which probably belongs in a different article), but in a nutshell, brain changes occur that make it difficult to almost impossible for a person to just stop using their substance of choice. The pain of withdrawal is what usually has people going back to their substance, not because they think that what they are doing is a pleasurable activity.   

If we change the language and position that we take within these domains, we can also change the way that people start to think about reaching out for help.  Let’s get rid of stigma and meet people “where they are” not try to drag them to where we think they ought to be. 

Here’s to your good health! 


It’s okay not to feel okay 


If you or someone you know has been struggling with their emotions, behaviors, or substance use please reach out to us. We can help you find appropriate tools and services that could help you overcome obstacles in your life. We are here for you. Please contact the Southern Ute Behavioral Health Division at 970-563-5700 for more information or to set up an appointment to see a counselor or therapist.  

Reminder: If you need to talk to someone, please reach out. 

And for those interested in opioid use education, harm reduction, and support, please contact us for quick Naloxone (Narcan) training and fentanyl test strips. We can schedule individual, family, or friends training times at our Southern Ute Behavioral Health Building, or we can come to you, and the training is around 30 minutes. Please call us at 970-563-5700 to set up a training appointment. 

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