Dealing with stigma & discrimination
NOTE: Quotes are presented word for word apart from minor editing for readability and clarity. Identifying details have been removed. Square brackets show text that has been added, e.g. ‘I want to maintain [my current level of consumption]’. Ellipses within square brackets […] show where text has been removed, e.g. ‘Counselling was good but […] I would have liked more information about other treatment options’.
A key concern for many of the people interviewed for this website is coping with the stigma associated with addiction and drug use. ‘Stigma’ refers to negative attitudes, judgements and stereotypes based on assumptions about a particular group of people. It can lead to exclusion and unfair treatment (often referred to as ‘discrimination’). Stigma and discrimination can also change the way people think of themselves: they may come to accept as true the negative judgements expressed by others. This can impact on self-esteem, mental health and general well-being. The ways in which the media reports drug use and how it is handled in the criminal justice system also produce and reflect stigma. Many of the people we interviewed for this website say they experience stigma and discrimination in relation to their drug use. They describe the impact of stigma on everyday life, including its role in healthcare and relationships with family, friends and work colleagues. Some say it contributes to isolation and marginalisation. For example, Andrew (M, 41, works in education, cannabis and alcohol) comments that being a ‘cannabis addict who doesn’t work and who has got disabilities’ puts him at ‘the bottom of the food chain’ where he faces ‘obstacles and […] afflictions every day’.
Some suggest that the degree of stigma depends on the drug as some are more heavily stigmatised than others. As Zadie (F, 33, works in the health sector, heroin) puts it: ‘A lot of my friends still have quite stigmatising and discriminatory attitudes to people who use opiates and ironically, most of them use coke [cocaine]. But you know, there’s always been that thing of: it’s fine to snort cocaine, but you’re somehow a seedy junkie if you do heroin’. A few describe stigmatising experiences in which others called them offensive names and repeated negative stereotypes about addiction.
Stigma influences whether or not people tell others about their drug use. Many of our participants say they’re concerned that if they tell others they will be judged, marginalised or otherwise discriminated against (see also Relationships, confidentiality & telling others). Some feel too embarrassed to discuss their concerns with health professionals, and in some cases this discourages them from seeking treatment. Concerns about experiencing stigma and and discrimination within the healthcare system can also lead people to delay seeking medical help and when they do, an initially minor health problem may have become much more serious and difficult to treat.
Some of our participants comment on the role of the media in creating and reinforcing the stigma associated with addiction and drug use. Several say media coverage can be sensationalist, exaggerating the harms of drugs and relying on misinformation and negative stereotypes. Others talk about how media reports impact on the everyday lives of people who take drugs by reinforcing negative assumptions about them, and contributing to social isolation and marginalisation.
Experiences of stigma and discrimination in the criminal justice system are described by some. They share experiences in which police officers, lawyers or judges expressed negative attitudes towards them or treated them unfairly (see also Contact with the criminal justice system).
While many of our participants describe how experiences of stigma discourage them from telling others about their consumption, some say they prefer to talk about it openly in an effort to challenge negative stereotypes. Common views about addiction or dependence are criticised by some who suggest they produce stigma and discrimination.
Read on to find out more about experiences of stigma and discrimination in relation to family and friends, in the health system, the workplace and the criminal justice system, and about how some people challenge stigma in their daily lives.