By Evelyn Miwa

To those who have not experienced it personally, stigma remains an essentially empty term, without the emotional distress, isolation, and barriers that are inextricably, yet sometimes privately, bound to it.

Drug use and possession, sexual orientation, and mental health are some of the more common issues distorted by stigma, often restricting our openness to discussion. Only recently have movements to #EndStigma become popular, but this sentiment only exists for what society deems “out of one’s control.”

The most progress has been made with depression. It is now widely recognized as a health matter, not a “cry for attention” that someone can “snap out of.” More recently, the majority of people have started to realize that sexual orientation and gender identity are not choices, but intrinsic to a person’s identity and should be treated as such.

But drug use and possession are still viewed through the damaging lens created by stigma. And despite how some people see it, involvement with drugs is not necessarily a conscious choice because it is heavily influenced by social determinants of health. To simplify it in our minds, people are automatically grouped into stereotyped categories and met with inappropriate responses. Worse still, mental illness, sexual orientation, and drug use frequently overlap in people trying to cope with the perceptions of our society.

The fact that these issues rarely exist on their own should lead to a complex discussion and an investment in new research. It remains that someone with mental illness who turns to illegal drugs because pharmaceuticals aren’t helping is labeled a “drug user,” left to cope on their own.

Almost instinctively, we form negative associations about “drug users” due to how entrenched stigma is in our society. Unfortunately, even when research clarifies stigmatized issues, especially in the case of drug use, it is not broadly publicized. Recent research shows that greater structural stigma corresponds to a higher incidence of drug use, with youth who identify as a sexual minority significantly more likely to have used drugs than their heterosexual peers. For this part of our population, the disconnect between their feelings and the perceptions of society can be–at the least–very restrictive.

What we may have once thought of as choices individuals were making, we can now see as products of our own society. And while these choices are not up to the stigmatized individuals, society can make a choice. We have the choice and ability to change our thinking: to think critically about our assumptions and put in the effort to begin to understand others.

But first, before any progress can be made, we need to remove the negative lens that has been created by stigma.

Evelyn Miwa is an intern with the Drug Policy Alliance.

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Author: Evelyn Miwa
Date Published: July 23, 2015
Published by Drug Policy Alliance

Via:: Ddrug Policy Alliance