Challenging drug and alcohol stigma

Let’s end the stigma

A drug or alcohol problem is a health condition. People should receive help and support, not judgement.

Drug and alcohol stigma

Drug and alcohol stigma does happen and does have consequences.

Stigma is when a person, or group of people, are seen in a negative way or myths are believed about them. This may be because of a particular characteristic such as a disability, mental health condition or drug and alcohol use.

Drug and alcohol stigma:

  • stops people who need treatment and support from getting help as they feel judged
  • affects the friends and family of people struggling with an alcohol or drug problem
  • affects organisations and people who provide support

People struggling with an alcohol or drug problem should get the same support and treatment as those with any other health condition. This should be without fear of judgment.

Together we can end the stigma around drug and alcohol use. We can do this by having a kinder approach to those affected by problem substance use. This should focus on understanding, hope and kindness.

How stigma happens

Stigma happens when a person is revealed to be, or is thought to be, a member of a particular group that is seen in a negative way. This might be the result of:

  • physical appearance
  • personal behaviour
  • personal reputation
  • using certain services (a drug treatment service, for example)
  • personal disclosure (telling someone your personal history)

Substance use has been seen as a lifestyle choice or the result of poor decisions. It’s also been described or viewed as a mistake or the result of moral weakness. This is stigmatising and unhelpful. It shows a connection between drug or alcohol use and personal failings. This allows substance use to be linked to character or morals. Viewing this as just a personal issue adds to stigma.

Impact of stigma

Stigma affects individuals, families and communities.

Self-stigma is when a person feels unworthy of help and results in people excluding themselves from services.


People with a drug or alcohol problem often see themselves in a way that reflects the prejudice and judgment of others. Sometimes this overrides any sense of self-worth or self-esteem.

There are also strong links between stigma, self-stigma, wellbeing and mental health problems.

Family members

Family members are also affected by stigma. This can limit their ability to get help for their loved ones. It may also stop them from seeking help for themselves.

Stigma experienced by families can also lead to feelings of shame, guilt, anxiety or blame.


Communities with problem substance use are also stigmatised. This can be the case when substance use is higher, or it’s just seen to be higher. This means whole communities can become defined by substance use.

They are also defined by the ‘types of people’ who live there. This causes communities and local residents to feel cut off and isolated.

Why tackling stigma matters

Stigma results in people with a drug or alcohol problem being left out or ignored. They may also be excluded from services. A wider stigma in society means this is seen as okay.

People might also feel uncomfortable asking for help and can then reach a crisis point. This also stops issues in mental and physical health, housing or debt being addressed.

People in early recovery can be worried about how other people will react to them as someone in recovery with experience of problem substance use. They can also experience stigma in volunteer work, training, education or employment.

Families often play an important part in the care of their loved ones. However, stigma can prevent family members from getting support for themselves or a loved one. It can also lead to people feeling that they do not deserve support or sympathy when there is a substance-related death in the family.

What can I do?

You can help challenge stigma by speaking up when you hear people around you make negative or wrong comments about people with a drug or alcohol problem.

Remember that a drug or alcohol problem should be treated as a health condition. This means that those affected should get the same support as those dealing with a health issue.

Think about the language used when talking about someone with a drug or alcohol problem. Are you using language that is judgmental?

Don’t define or group the person based on their drug or alcohol problem.

The negative labels applied to people who have a drug or alcohol problem can stop people from getting the support they need.

Try using these terms instead:

  • person with problematic substance use
  • person with harmful alcohol use
  • person with problematic drug use
  • abstinent/person who has stopped using drugs
  • substance use

Avoid using these terms:

  • addict
  • alcoholic
  • junkie
  • jakey
  • clean
  • substance abuse

Committing to a stigma-free Scotland

The Drugs Death Taskforce developed a stigma charter that all organisations, including businesses and community groups, can use. This shows a commitment to creating a Scotland that is free from stigma.

It is important to listen to and work with people who have experienced problem substance (drug or alcohol) use.

Creating a stigma-free Scotland requires shared responsibility, commitment and action. We all have a part to play.

By signing up to the Stigma Charter, I/we commit to:

  • treating people with dignity and respect when using any services and in line with a trauma informed approach
  • supporting people in recovery and their families to create a culture of mutual respect and support in their local community, wider area and nationally
  • promoting the use of positive language when speaking with, or about people in active substance use or recovery and their families
  • challenging the image and attitude portrayed of people who use or have used substances, or their families, through work with media partners to develop policies and proactive campaigns

How people can get support

If you or someone you know is struggling with their drug or alcohol use, you can find out more about the support available: