Stigmatize the use, not the user? Attitudes on opioid use, drug injection, treatment, and overdose prevention in rural communities

Stigma is a known barrier to treating substance use disorders and dramatically diminishes the quality of life of people who use drugs (PWUD) nonmedically. Stigma against PWUD may be especially pronounced in rural areas due to their decreased anonymity and residents’ limited access, or resistance, to “neutralizing” information on factors associated with drug use. Stigma often manifests in the attitudes of professionals whom stigmatized individuals regularly interact with and often materially impact. We analyzed interviews conducted between July 2018 and February 2019 with professional stakeholders in rural southern Illinois who interact with PWUD, specifically those who use opioids nonmedically or who inject drugs (n=30). We further analyzed interview data from a complementary PWUD sample (n=22). Interviews addressed perspectives around nonmedical drug use and treatment/harm reduction, with analysis centered around the Framework Integrating Normative Influences on Stigma and its focus on micro, meso and macro level stigmatization processes. Stakeholder participants included professionals from local law enforcement, courts, healthcare organizations, emergency management services, and faith-based and social services organizations. Most stakeholders, particularly law enforcement, negatively perceived PWUD and nonmedical drug use in general, questioned the character, agency and extrinsic value of PWUD, and used labels (e.g. “addict,” “abuser,” etc.) that may be regarded as stigmatizing. Further, most respondents, including PWUD, characterized their communities as largely unaware or dismissive of the bio-medical and sociocultural explanations for opioid use, drug injection and towards harm reduction services (e.g., syringe exchanges) and naloxone, which were frequently framed as undeserved usages of taxpayer funds. In conclusion, rural stigma against PWUD manifested and was framed as a substantial issue, notably activating at micro, meso and macro levels. Stigma prevention efforts in these communities should aim to improve public knowledge on the intricate factors contributing to opioid use and drug injection and harm reduction programming’s moral and fiscal value.

Full citation:
Ezell JM, Walters S, Friedman SR, Bolinski R, Jenkins WD, Schneider J, Link B, Pho MT (2021).
Stigmatize the use, not the user? Attitudes on opioid use, drug injection, treatment, and overdose prevention in rural communities
Social Science and Medicine, 268, 113470. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2020.113470. PMCID: PMC7755701.