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Lessons Learned: How We Respond to Stigma

Perhaps our most powerful tool when dealing with stigma is sharing our lessons learned. Whether we face public stigma or our own self-stigma, we can always choose how we respond and when.

PUBLIC STIGMA: What Works for Us

Public stigma can either be very subtle or completely in your face.  There are many ways to respond to it  – whether it’s directed at you or directed at others. We asked people with lived experience who had faced stigma in a public setting, what happened and how you handled it? What advice would you give to someone on how to respond to an experience like yours? What worked for you?

Start a Conversation

My response to stigma — whether it’s judgments, non-inclusive language, or just plain old hate — is to ask very specific questions about the behavior at hand. For example, if I’m talking with someone and they say something that I find to be problematic or to be placing unfair judgment, I will ask “Can you tell me more about that?” or “I guess I’m not sure if I quite understand, can you explain why you feel that way?” Then, I’m often starting a conversation where I’m not also judging that person back. They may have some real and valid negative experiences regarding substance use disorder or mental health in their lives. ”

“When we say “meet them where they are”, I don’t think that just applies to people who are being pushed down by stigma, I think it also applies to those furthering stigma. I believe stigma is fed by fear and dehumanizing experiences. To dismiss fear and dehumanize people in the process of addressing stigma seems to only make problems worse. I  have these conversations with university staff and administrators who say,  “We don’t have THEM here”, or who say that they would never need naloxone on their campus. Or when they ask, “Why would we want a bunch of junkies gathering on campus?” So, it’s become a real skill to take a second, breathe, and trust that we all have hearts just waiting to be acknowledged. So, honestly, I have started treating everyone like I wish we would treat those in active use or seeking recovery. I feel that it’s led me to be a better person in general.”

Choosing to Speak Up:

“There is stigma in a public setting for getting mental health help. Others have seen it as weakness,  but I have learned and have taught others that getting help is a strength.”

“Physical disability often comes with stigma. When interacting with a vendor, waiter, interviewer, etc., countless times I have experienced and witnessed the person with a disability being ignored or glossed over. The stigma is that a person with a disability is not as capable to think, act, or answer for themselves. Not true.

When that happens, I speak up and make my voice and opinions known. Depending on the situation, I might even ask the person I’m interacting with, why they didn’t directly interact with me. Turn it into a non-confrontational teachable moment.”

It’s Okay to Step Back

“Addressing these things takes time, so I try not to act too impulsively or out of fear because it is more important to me that I am acting from a caring and authentic place. If I can’t do that, I just ignore it…. I try to see confrontation as a learning experience. There is a lot of value here, but if it doesn’t feel like it’s time to talk,  it’s also ok to step back and just listen for a while. I think the people who uphold stigmas were either taught to do so or they are stigmatized themselves in one way or another….. As a college student, I’ve experienced public stigma from my institution when advocating for inclusive recovery spaces on campus.  Most of what I hear is passed down through administration and I can’t always put faces to words, which makes me feel like the stigma is ingrained in the walls of each building I enter into, whether the people there want to perpetuate it or not, there’s still these little whispering voices. I’ve been told not to be so vulnerable because recovery is a dirty word that gives a negative image.  I’ve been told not to talk about recovery to anyone, to keep it to myself. I was silent at first but now I talk about what I want. Talking to people I trust was the only way I could handle all of this— friends, co-workers, professors, etc, and evaluating for myself what I believe, what I want to do, and how I want to come across.”

SELF STIGMA: What Works for Us

Self-stigma can be the most critical voice of all, but it is generally unknown and unseen by those around you. We asked, if you experienced a time when your self-stigma affected you adversely, what did you to do overcome that — and what would you say to another person currently struggling with that? What works for you?

Reality Check

Self-stigma surrounding my own recovery story,  my past with mental/physical health, and queer identity always had me believing that I had to prove myself to others in different spaces I occupied. I still feel this way sometimes and I need to reality check, I write my thoughts down, I detach from my phone, and reconnect with nature. I remind myself that we all occupy this earth together and if I wasn’t made to handle what is going on around me, I wouldn’t be here. But I am here, I was made to be here, we all were. It’s ok to be a work in progress. I’m glad I have people in my life who help me figure out which way to go when I feel lost, and I’m glad to invest so much time in myself to really understand my own values and get to a place where I can start to shed some of the stigmas I’ve knowingly and unknowingly carried with me. The biggest piece of advice I ever got was “trust yourself.” Wake up everyday and choose yourself. Other people are not entitled to all the details of your existence. Your existence is for you first, so enjoy it.”

Find Your Voice

“Others saying I am too emotional or too sensitive has made it challenging for me to speak up or speak my mind without anxiety. I have worked on it through therapy but also by finding my voice and being uncomfortable finding courage through my vulnerability.  At times, it has been reinforced by negative comments or feedback,  but I have realized that it is someone else’s to own and not mine to personalize.”


“I often tell people that stigma killed our daughter.   I really didn’t care what other people thought, but I think it affected how we responded to her and it somewhat blinded all of us.  There were so many things that we didn’t see with our daughter when they were happening, and the unfortunate truth is that I think in a way we didn’t want to see them. By the time we did and realized she needed a long-term treatment program, it was really too late. It was only a couple of months before her fatal overdose.   About 5 months after she had self detoxed, just a week or so before she overdosed, she and I had a conversation about long-term treatment programs. She said she could never do that to us because of the embarrassment it would cause. She worried that it would affect her for the rest of her life as she tried to pursue career choices. It was actually a great conversation and one I thought was surely the start of laying the groundwork for her sustained recovery.  I urge parents to really stay open-minded and pay close attention to what is going on in their teen’s life, especially looking for signs of any mental struggles — and if their concern about shame or embarrassment gets in the way of getting treatment. Get involved early, as they grow into adults the problems grow with them.”

Learn, Listen, and Remember

“I grew up around people who used drugs, and some of those people were being actively investigated (and later put in prison) by parents of my friends. Growing up in a small town, it’s hard not to see the experiences of your family members (who use drugs, participated in the drug trade, and were incarcerated) as a giant red X on your back at every point in your life. I spent a lot of time as a young adult just hoping that teachers, coaches, employers, etc, wouldn’t recognize my last name. I struggled with it quite a bit and even learned to resent it. It wasn’t until I went to college, moved 100 miles away, that I began to break out of that shell…. At the end of my first year in college, I was able to reconnect to one of my siblings (who I had hated for a long time for “choosing drugs over me”) and finally asked him, “Why did you abandon me/us?”   His response was,  “Imagine if you had the ability to press a button and suddenly feel all of the love and hugs we felt we missed growing up.”  Suddenly, everything made sense. It was that moment of clarity, of humanizing his experience and mine, that allowed me to relate with addiction rather than demonize and distance myself from it. In the years since I’ve continued to learn and listen and remember that my judgments have more to do with me and my fears/ignorance than anything else. Life is hard, it’s complicated, and addiction (and our relationships to it) become a lot more manageable when we approach with openness and love rather than the negative emotions that have been written into our policy and culture.”