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Taking Action to Save Lives: Reducing the Stigma of Addiction & People Who Use Drugs

Aug. 1, 2022

Nearly 110,000 people died of drug overdoses in the United States in 2021; that number is assumed to be an underestimate and is expected to increase 12%, on average, in 2022.

Despite effective Food and Drug Aministration-approved medications that treat various substance use disorders, numerous proven life-saving harm-reduction techniques, and clinical- and peer-based support methods shown to facilitate recovery, the number of people dying from drug overdoses continues to rise every year in the United States. There are many reasons for this failure, but a root cause is stigma.

The stigma for those using drugs at institutional, systemic and individual levels constructs a barrier to high-quality, compassionate and evidence-based treatment. In an effort to systematically shine a light on and dismantle these stigmas, Dell Medical School and the organization Shatterproof brought together more than 2,000 health care and health policy professionals, alongside harm reduction and recovery support advocates, at the second annual Stigma of Addiction Summit in June 2022. At the summit, participants discussed the ways people who use drugs experience stigma and the negative impacts on health outcomes it causes, with a focus on action and real-world examples of what can be done.

While many conversations and educational opportunities about stigma remain surface-level conceptual discussions, the 2022 summit focused specifically on offering tangible, action-oriented skill development and intervention deployment centered around the voices, experience and expertise of those with lived experience of drugs, recovery and addiction treatment. Summit programming was designed to spotlight the following eight focus areas identified as critical to meaningful stigma reduction after the inaugural summit in 2021:

  • Strategy.
  • Policy.
  • Research.
  • Representation.
  • Equity.
  • Funding.
  • Education.
  • Inclusivity.

In addition to an opening keynote from Rahul Gupta, the acting director of the Biden administration’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, the summit specifically showcased national initiatives designed to measure or reduce stigma and the release of a health care best practice guide for stigma reduction that was developed by a working group of national experts in health care-based stigma prior to the summit. Recordings of all summit sessions, a compendium of all submitted innovation projects and the health care best practice guide are freely available on the summit website.