Breaking Down the Stigma of Substance Use

By Lauren Kiefert | Posted on March 11, 2020

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Addiction and mental health conditions can affect anyone, regardless of age, sex, race/ethnicity, background or socioeconomic status. These individuals must constantly battle stigma, or the negative attitudes and beliefs directed toward an individual or group of people with certain characteristics, traits or circumstances. Stigma not only impacts society’s ability to treat addiction and mental health, but also influences an individual’s likelihood to seek and/or to accept treatment.

The American Psychiatric Association defines addiction — also known as substance use disorder (SUD) — as a complex brain disease in which an individual compulsively uses substances despite negative and harmful consequences. The person develops an intense focus on using a certain drug/drugs to the point where it takes over their life. SUD impacts judgment, decision making, learning, memory and behavior control — resulting in distorted thinking, behavior and bodily functions. Impaired brain functioning can also be long-term, and complications may last a lifetime.

Many people with SUD also experience mental illness — a health condition involving a change in emotion, thinking and/or behavior, which often impairs functioning in social, work and family settings. Mental illness may be present before SUD, or the addiction may trigger or worsen a current mental condition. About half of those experiencing a mental illness will also suffer from SUD. And in a given year, one in twelve U.S. adults has a diagnosable SUD.

What Can Park and Recreation Professionals Do to Confront Stigma?

As some of the largest community-based organizations focused on improving health outcomes, park and recreation professionals have a duty to respond to the rising rates of mental health conditions and substance use disorders impacting communities across the country. One vital way in which professionals can respond is by focusing on breaking down the stigma around substance use disorder and mental health conditions.

The National Alliance on Mental Health shares various ways to break down the stigmas associated with mental health:

  • Openly discuss mental health

    • Parks and recreation can help inform the public by educating, spreading awareness, and openly talking about these issues. Creating partnerships and gaining support from key stakeholders and community members can also destigmatize mental health/SUD; allowing for more comprehensive treatment and recovery efforts to take place.
  • Educate yourself and others

    • We all have a responsibility to further educate ourselves as individuals around mental health conditions and substance use disorder. Consider providing training to staff on the issue of stigma, helping them to develop empathy for community members who may be struggling. Consider carving out some time each week to focus on reading a new article, inviting someone impacted by substance use or mental health to speak, or exploring an NRPA learning opportunity.
  • Be aware of the language

    • Words matter. Review the language that you and your staff are using in your daily interactions with one another, community members and through communications and marketing materials. provides some great tools on how to shift the narrative.
  • Promote equality between physical and mental health conditions

    • Most park and recreation agencies offer programs and services that focus on physical health improvements. We should value mental health programs and services in the same way. Are there new classes or community events that could be added to your existing schedules? Can you develop a relationship with a behavioral health service provider to conduct outreach and educational opportunities?
  • Be compassionate towards those with mental illness

    • Understand that mental illness is not anyone’s fault. No one chooses to be mentally ill or battle addiction. Along with educating yourself and your staff about the complexities and science behind mental health and SUD, recognize that we are all human and deserve respect. If someone in your community is struggling, reserve judgment and do your best to help connect them to a local care provider.
  • Choose empowerment over shame

    • Help those with mental illness and substance use disorders feel respected and valued in your community. Consider hosting a treatment fair where local providers gather to provide resources and services to those in need. A recovery celebration would also be a great way to destigmatize and give power to those in recovery or looking to recover.
  • Be honest about treatment

    • Be open and/or encourage others to be transparent about their own mental health journey. There is so much stigma about seeing a therapist or psychiatrist yet having an appointment with a primary care physician bears no shame.  Recommend your staff and local community to speak openly about mental health treatment and the available services and resources.
  • Tell the media when they are being stigmatic

    • If you/your staff come across a TV show, news broadcast or social media post that negatively portrays mental health, let them know! Consider starting an anti-stigma campaign at your park and recreation department or through your social media platforms.
  • Don’t harbor self-stigma

    • Fight the stigma of mental health by not having a stigma for yourself. If you are impacted by mental illness, do not feel shameful or embarrassed. Lead by example and show others that your disease does not define you.

As members and influencers of communities, parks and recreation are in a unique position to lead efforts towards reducing mental health and substance use disorder stigma nationwide. By recognizing the complexities of these disorders and helping educate the public about the underlying scientific and environmental factors that contribute to mental illness and SUD development, park and recreation professionals can play a large role in combatting negative perceptions of mental health and substance use.

For more background on the details of SUD, mental health disorders and stigma, stay tuned for an article in a future issue of Parks & Recreation magazine.

Next Up in this Blog Series: Addressing Other Substances

As NRPA explores the role of parks and recreation in the opioid crisis, we must recognize and address the reality that other substances are being used on park grounds and/or around facilities, as well. Through various site visits and focus groups conducted by NRPA, it is clear that electronic cigarettes (also known as e-cigarettes or vapes) and marijuana also impact park users and park safety. These e-cigarettes are small, battery-powered devices that heat liquid into a vapor for inhalation. The liquid often contains nicotine, flavoring and other chemicals. However, marijuana and other substances can also be heated and inhaled. The increasing popularity of e-cigarettes, combined with continued marijuana legalization/decriminalization in many states across the country, raises a variety of concerns regarding parks and their users, park staff, community members and related policies/laws. These issues, as well as potential solutions, will be explored in the next blog post in this series.

Previously in this Blog Series

*Do you have a story to tell about this epidemic or how your agency is responding? Feel free to email it to me! We firmly believe that through shared stories and experiences, park and recreation professionals can continue to support and elevate the work we do as public health advocates, creating healthier, stronger communities for all.

Lauren Kiefert is an NRPA Program Specialist.