Overcoming Stigma Barriers In Recovery

"Stigma is described as any false negative beliefs that are widespread about a topic or a group of people."

Overcoming Stigma Barriers In Recovery

There are many types of stigma that surround people in Recovery, also known as those who struggle with substance use disorder (SUD). At its core, stigma is described as any false negative beliefs that are widespread about a topic or a group of people. For those struggling with Recovery, these are just some of the types of stigma they face:


John Hopkins Medicine found that stigma damages the health and well-being of people in Recovery and may interfere with the quality of care they receive in clinical settings. In some cases, patients who use Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) also experience pushback from members of abstinence-based healthcare settings. Clients may feel torn between being honest about their journey versus balancing questions about when they might stop taking medication for their disease.


People living in Recovery are often intimidated to share their struggles, especially in the workplace. The Harvard Pilgrim Organization found that over 20% of those suffering from SUD, avoid evidence-based treatment out of fear of repercussions at work.


External stigma is damaging, but people in Recovery also have to deal with internalized shame they may have experienced over the years.

What Causes Stigma?

Some of the factors that can contribute to the stigma surrounding people in Recovery include lack of education about the nature of addiction; not knowing anyone with a substance use disorder; being surrounded by others who share the same prejudicial beliefs; wanting to believe there are simple solutions to complex problems.

SUD is multifaceted and multidimensional. There is not one thing that keeps a person stuck in the struggle with substances and it will take more than one thing to help them get their footing underneath them and achieve sobriety. Examples of addiction stigma include:

  • Addiction is a choice.
  • People who use drugs have no willpower.
  • People who abuse alcohol are selfish and don’t care about their loved ones.
  • Only poor and uneducated people develop addictions.
  • Someone with an addiction is a criminal who deserves to be in jail.
  • Someone with an addiction can’t contribute to the community.
  • Someone with an addiction can’t be helped.

How Can Stigma Be Overcome?

Change doesn't happen overnight, but here are some steps that can help break the barriers of stigma and help create an environment that supports recovery for those in need.

Provide accurate information:

Stigma survives on misinformation. If you don’t know, ask or learn. Educate yourself. Then help educate others.

Offer compassion instead of judgment:

Be kind. Kindness has a ripple effect that can break down stigma. Ask if you can help by providing transportation to a recovery meeting, providing resources, and if you feel comfortable offering a reference for employment, be a mentor. This shows the recovery person that not everyone believes the stigma and offers more hope.

Reach out to the loved ones of people with substance use disorders:

SUD does not only affect the individual who is abusing the substance. It affects families, children, and friends. They are hurting as well. Encourage them to seek support as well. Al-Anon and Nar-Anon are groups that were created to offer support and solutions to those who love someone who suffers from a SUD.

Share Recovery stories:

If you are a person in Recovery, share your story. This can be a powerful tool to show those who may be feeling hopeless that people do recover. When people in recovery are not ashamed of their past it allows those currently going through the challenge to see that it can be done.

If the thought of all of this seems overwhelming to you, just imagine what it would feel like for it to be your story. People don’t choose to have a substance use disorder, and they have a much better chance of recovering when they feel supported.

Rae-Jean Bergner is a Recovery Therapist at NorthLakes Community Clinic - Hayward and is currently accepting new patients. If you or someone you know is struggling, please know this program can help. Visit nlccwi.org or call 888.834.4551 to learn more.

-- Submitted by Rae-Jean Bergner, CSAC / NorthLakes Community Clinic

Last Update: Mar 24, 2023 11:09 am CDT

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