Guiding Principles for Addressing the Stigma on Opioid Addiction

Article in John Hopkins Bloomberg American Health Initiative

De-stigmatizing opioid use disorder is a pivotal step toward more effective treatment and societal outcomes. The power of language and narrative is crucial in shaping public perceptions, urging a shift towards person-centered language and an acknowledgement of external, societal factors contributing to addiction. This article offers evidence-based tactics for crafting messages that foster empathy, generate hope, and advocate for accessible, effective treatments for those battling addiction. 

The words we choose and the stories we tell have significant impact on public attitude and policy support. Humanizing the condition and focusing on recovery helps shifts the narrative from one of shame to one of understanding and support.

Here are our key takeaways from the article:

  • Avoid stigmatizing language: Swap terms like "addict" for "person with a substance use disorder" to reduce stigma.
  • Highlight societal factors: Accentuate the role of external elements, such as prescribed medications leading to addiction, to encourage empathy.
  • Promote solution-oriented messages: Emphasize the availability of effective treatments to inspire hope and drive change.
  • Share sympathetic narratives: Use stories that humanize individuals with addiction, include external causality, and focus on recovery.
  • Recognize influential narrative details: Be mindful of the demographics and perspective to resonate with target audiences.
  • Validate the existence of effective treatment: Discuss real-life examples of successful recovery to change perceptions.
  • Avoid ineffective messaging: Steer clear of messages that solely attribute addiction to disease or biological factors, which can perpetuate stigma.
  • Combine disease context with effective treatment: Pairing medical framing with solution-focused messages can enhance public support for treatment access.

Guiding Principles for Addressing the Stigma on Opioid Addiction

From John Hopkins Bloomberg American Health Initiative

"Public stigma—defined as negative attitudes toward a specific group of people among the general public—is very high toward individuals with opioid use disorder. Public stigma is a barrier to implementation of evidence-based policies and program to address the opioid crisis. Research shows that:  

Many Americans view poor individual choices/lack of discipline as the cause of opioid addiction: 

  • 78% of Americans believe people who are addicted to prescription opioids are, themselves, to blame for the problem.
  • 72% believe that people addicted to prescription opioids lack self-discipline."

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