Mental Health

Understanding Addiction and Substance Use Stigma: What You Can Do to Help

Understanding Addiction

Substance use disorders impact many Head Start children, families, and staff. Find current information about addiction, overdose, treatment, and recovery below. Find out how Head Start programs can support those impacted by substance use.

"For me, recovery is very important. I want something more out of my life, and I'm excited to go get it."
-Bryant, Shatterproof ambassador

"It's not an 'other' kind of situation. It's an 'all of us' situation."
-Toscha, Early Head Start director

"It was all from the heart, like I felt it. I came home from jail, and I went straight to the day care to thank all those staff members. Those women believed in me and saw more in me each day."
-Gina, Head Start parent

  • More than 20 million Americans have a substance use disorder (also called an addiction). Addiction is a treatable medical disease that can last for a long time. Having an addiction doesn't mean someone is weak or a bad person.
  • Overdoses are the No. 1 cause of accidental death in the United States. From December 2019 to December 2020, over 93,000 people died from overdoses in the United States — the highest number ever recorded.
  • Anyone can become addicted to alcohol or drugs for several reasons, including their genes, how drugs interact with their brain, their environment, their experiences, and mental health issues. However, not everyone who tries drugs becomes addicted.
  • Overdoses are preventable. Naloxone, a medication that temporarily stops an opioid overdose, is available in your community.
  • Treatment works and recovery is possible. People in recovery can lead healthy, normal lives. There is no single way to recover. Recovery can take time — be patient, even when it is hard!
  • People are more likely to get treatment and recover when their families, friends, providers, and communities support them without judging them. Learn about resources in your community.
  • How can you help?
    • Support families: Discuss drug or alcohol use, consider using a screening tool to check for drug or alcohol use problems, and refer families to resources for support or treatment, if needed.
    • Encourage family members to communicate with their health care providers if they have any questions or concerns about medications they are taking.
    • Share resources with families about how to get rid of unused medications safely.

Understanding Substance Use Stigma

Recovery from addiction is much more likely in nonjudgmental, supportive environments. Explore the different ways stigma might be experienced by people living with substance use disorders. Learn about ways to promote recovery through respect and compassion in your work.

  • Stigma is a mark of disgrace that sets a person apart from others. Negative attitudes and beliefs create prejudice, which leads to negative actions and discrimination.
  • Seven ways stigma contributes to addiction include:
    1. Increasing shame and isolation from family, friends, and community
    2. Preventing people from seeking help
    3. Limiting treatment availability
    4. Limiting the amount of substance use treatment covered by health insurance
    5. Pushing people toward treatment that's not based on science
    6. Treating people with an addiction as criminals
    7. Creating social and structural barriers to recovery, such as difficulty getting and keeping a job and staying employed
  • There are three types of stigma:
    1. Public stigma: negative attitudes and fears that isolate those with addiction
    2. Structural stigma: excluding those with addiction from opportunities and resources
    3. Self-stigma: believing negative stereotypes about oneself
  • Access to treatment is not equal among racial groups. White Americans get treatment more easily and quickly than Black or Hispanic Americans due to decades of discriminatory and racist policies, laws, practices, and beliefs. It is important to understand that Black and Hispanic Americans experience other stigmas in addition to the broader addiction stigmas mentioned above.
  • People are more likely to get treatment and recover when their families, friends, providers, and communities support them without judging them. Choose supportive, respectful, and nonjudgmental words that treat people with respect and compassion.
  • What can you do?
    • Learn the facts about addiction.
    • Speak out when you hear something stigmatizing, and question people's misunderstandings and stereotypes.
    • Talk about substance use and addiction using respectful language.
    • Respect the dignity and humanity of all people, including people experiencing addiction; see the whole person.
    • Listen when people are sharing their story.

For more information about how Head Start programs can help people with substance use problems, visit:

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