TheMHS 2014 S050: Understanding Stigma

By August 28, 2014 No Comments

You can read the abstract for this session here

This topic opened with the statement that the issue of stigma and discrimination for the alcohol and other drug (AOD) client population is pervasive. Recent studies into understanding this stigma highlighted a number of key themes including the experience of stigma, underpinning stigma, barriers to access, self-stigma and reducing stigma. There was an underlying set of sub-themes throughout the presentation that included the notion of AOD clients as ‘undeserving’ and the belief that a person makes a conscious choice to use drugs which is understood in the isolation of context. The notion of blame towards the AOD client group appears to remain a common thread to these understandings and significant contribution to stigma.

Experiences of stigma were highlighted as widespread and demonstrated on systemic, interpersonal and intrapersonal levels. The underpinnings of stigma play out as a direct result of a lack of understanding, empathy, and the illegality associated with drug use. Polices were identified as preventing honest discourse and the deeply embedded stigma of AOD in media stories was discussed as a significant factor to reinforcing stigma. Barriers to access and treatment exist in numerous forms including systemic barriers, intrapersonal, practical and intrapersonal. Possible ways in which stigma may be reduced involve educating the public, infrastructure such as dry nightclubs, increased funding and decriminalisation of drug use. Policy was continually described as inflexible and rigid with reform in this area highlighted as having the potential to contribute to a major reduction in stigma. Integrated service delivery and organisational change, training within the sector and consumer education were also mentioned as factors that may reduce stigma associated with AOD clients.   

What remains a significant contributing factor to the stigma in the AOD field is the criminal association to drug use. Thinking about AOD as a health issue and not a criminal issue may have benefits both in terms of stigma reduction and in terms of encouraging legal reform.