Dismantling the Stigma Around Substance Use & Mental Health Disorders


There are more effective treatment options for substance use and  than ever before. However, every year thousands of people die from untreated substance use disorders (SUD) or suicide-related to untreated mental health conditions. Many more experience a substandard quality of life due to a lack of treatment for these disorders. With help available, why are many people still not seeking treatment for SUD and mental health issues? Reasons vary depending on the individual and their circumstances, but many people will not seek treatment because of the stigma surrounding these disorders. 


What is Stigma?

For years there has been a lot of conversation regarding SUD stigma and mental illness, but what is stigma mean? The American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary of Psychology defines sigma as “the negative social attitude attached to a characteristic of an individual that may be regarded as a mental, physical, or social deficiency. A stigma implies social disapproval and can lead unfairly to discrimination against and exclusion of the individual.”

Even today, people with SUD are still blamed for their illness, and people with mental health disorders are often considered weak. These erroneous beliefs persist despite evidence that substance use and mood disorders are complex, affected by multiple biopsychosocial components.


Factors Influencing a Stigma

The factors that influence stigma are complicated and exist on structural, public and individual levels. These factors include:

  • Blame: People with a SUD are seen as being more responsible for their condition than people with a mental health disorder. Therefore, blame can negatively influence attitudes regarding the appropriateness of public funding of treatment programs.
  • Stereotypes: The stereotypes that people with mood disorders and SUD are unpredictable and dangerous continues to persist, including in the United States. 
  • Misinformation: Knowledge about mental health disorders and SUD can positively influence public norms, but misinformation persists even among healthcare providers.
  • Contact and experience: Immediate social contact and experience with SUD and mental health disorders will affect a person’s opinions and understanding but not necessarily decrease stigmas surrounding the issues.
  • Media portrayals: The ideas and images about mood disorders and SUD can have a strong influence on the ideas and beliefs of the public. Unfortunately, many of these portrayals encourage negative beliefs and increase stigma toward people living with these disorders. However, there is a slow positive change in this area.
  • Race, ethnicity and culture: Although sociodemographic factors strongly affect a wide variety of social beliefs, the relationship between these factors and stigma is less clear. What is clear is that minorities access care for these disorders at a lower rate than whites. When they do seek treatment, the care they get is often suboptimal.


The Devastating Consequences of Stigma

For people living with substance use and mental health disorders, the stigma they face can affect many areas of their lives and have devastating consequences. It can lead to failure to seek help and treatment for these disorders. Stigma can even enhance substance use or lead to relapse, playing a role in maintaining the vicious cycle driving continued substance use. 

There has long been attention focused on the violence and dangerousness of people with psychiatric disorders, but in reality, they are often at higher risk for victimization. When they seek help from authorities, they are more likely to experience unfair treatment than those without psychiatric disorders.

Stigma leads to people with substance use and mental health disorders being at higher risk of experiencing employment discrimination and homelessness. They are also more likely to be counseled to take jobs they are overqualified for than people without these disorders. 

There is a disproportionate number of people with mental health disorders involved in the criminal justice system, which may indicate stigma leading to criminal laws unfairly targeting those with mental health disorders. Many states have more people with mental health issues incarcerated in jails or prisons than receiving treatment in state psychiatric hospitals. Stigma has led to creating policies that treat SUD as a criminal issue rather than a medical one have created an environment that marginalizes people. The shame, guilt and increased levels of the stigma created by the policies developed to curb substance use can lead to a vicious cycle of continued use. 

When people living with mental health disorders or SUD internalize this stigma, it can lead to the “why try” effect, which means why should a person bother trying to live and work independently if they are not valued. Self-stigma can be a huge barrier to recovery.


Dismantling Stigma

For change to occur and the dismantling of stigma to happen, we must target it on every level. On the structural level, that would begin with legislators, institutions and organizations. Strategies would be aimed at changing decision-making processes, policies and regulations that support discrimination against people with mental health disorders and SUD.

On the public level, mass education about destigmatizing these disorders may help. Media could serve as a helpful tool by promoting messages that dispel myths about SUD and mental health illness while bringing awareness to the unfair treatment of this population. 

On the individual level, we can promote self-esteem and self-efficacy. Programs such as peer support and mentoring programs can help individuals on their recovery journey. Teaching coping skills and providing education to dispel myths about these disorders can assist individuals as well. 

While we still have a long road ahead of us, steps are being made to decrease the stigma around people with mental health illnesses and SUD and increase access to effective treatment. If we pull together to work on tearing down stigma, focus on helping people with these disorders and increasing our understanding of the disorders, change can happen.


Help is available at Casa Palmera and we encourage you not to let the stigma around SUD and mental health disorders stop you from seeking treatment. Here you will find industry-leading, holistic treatment for mental health, co-occurring and substance use disorders. We work with our patients to determine underlying issues and create a comprehensive, individualized treatment plan to serve as a roadmap for your recovery journey. We offer an aftercare plan, relapse prevention classes, alumni events, and we even have an app that will help you maintain your sobriety. Call us today at (855) 508-0473 to learn more about our treatment options at our beautiful location in Del Mar, California.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.