Opioid Addiction Treatment Stigma Still Lingers

opioid addiction treatment

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an opioid addiction treatment. The treatment approach has proven highly effective in treating addiction, especially when combined with additional therapies.

However, a new study found that admitting to receiving opioid addiction treatment can have devastating effects.

Researchers found that—although MAT is among the most effective treatments for opioid use disorder—people remain misinformed about the approach. Many still stigmatize those involved in MAT programs.

What is Medication-Assisted Treatment?

doctor prescriptionMedication-assisted treatment involves utilizing specific medications to treat substance use disorders. Particularly, medication is commonly used to treat opioid use disorder and alcohol use disorder.

In this particular study, researchers looked at the following medications for opioid addiction treatment. Those medications include:

  • Buprenorphine: A partial opioid agonist that binds to the opioid receptors in the brain. It can help reduce physical dependence on opioids. Buprenorphine reduces withdrawal symptoms and cravings and cravings.
  • Methadone: A long-acting opioid agonist that also reduces opioid cravings and withdrawal. It also blocks the effects of other opioids.
  • Buprenorphine/naloxone: A combination medication provides the benefits of buprenorphine together with the effects of opioid overdose reversal drug, naloxone. The idea behind combining the two drugs is to prevent misuse of buprenorphine and/or other opioids.

Many people with opioid addiction can receive these medications from their healthcare provider or an addiction treatment facility.

With the increasing death toll from opioids during the pandemic, MAT has been more readily available via telemedicine with fewer restrictions.

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The Stigmatizing Effects of Disclosing Opioid Addiction Treatment

A new study in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment revealed that disclosing receiving MAT can produce stigmatizing reactions.

Stigma is holding a negative attitude or actively discriminating against someone based on certain characteristics. In this instance, stigma against someone with opioid addiction could be the belief that the person can’t be trusted or is simply not a valuable member of society.

In addition to social rejection, stigmatizing attitudes can have a whole host of negative impacts. Those include adversely affecting treatment outcomes and, in worst-case scenarios, preventing people from seeking treatment in the first place.

“When I first saw my doctor, I was terrified that he would judge me because of my addiction,” Martin explained. “I was right. He called me an addict and told me I needed to get clean. It felt like he treated me like a sub-human.”

Unfortunately, Martin’s story isn’t uncommon. Study authors mention that people taking medication for opioid use disorder can be judged in various scenarios.

In their new study, researchers looked specifically at the reactions of people who received a disclosure about MAT patients, how the patient responded to those reactions, and how it impacted their recovery.

Most interesting, participants reported that the reactions of people among support groups led to them leaving.

In some instances, participants even stopped taking the medication because of the stigma they received.

Because of these negative reactions, the study authors even suggest avoiding disclosure. Short of that, researchers suggest that people in MAT manage misinformation and try to improve understanding to reduce stigma.

Common Misconceptions About MAT

The stigma associated with MAT is often due to misunderstanding the medications and overall treatment approach.

MAT, despite its benefits, is still labeled as a “crutch”. The National Council on Behavioral Health has highlighted and refuted some of the most common misconceptions, which include:

  • MAT is swapping one drug for another: In fact, MAT bridges biological and behavioral components of addiction. MAT works differently than opioids and helps overcome cravings and withdrawal to achieve sustained recovery.
  • MAT increases the risk of overdose: MAT actually prevents overdose, and some components reverse the effects of opioids.
  • MAT is only a short-term treatment: Research shows that MAT should be used for 1-2 years to have the best chance of sustained sobriety.
  • There is no proof that MAT is better than abstinence: MAT is a treatment approved by SAMHSA and the FDA. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other agencies state that MAT is the front-line treatment for opioid use disorder.
  • Most insurance plans don’t cover MAT: Most insurers and Medicaid cover MAT.
  • MAT will hinder a person’s recovery: MAT has been shown to improve a client’s quality of life, daily functioning, and ability to handle stress. When used in a larger treatment plan, MAT typically improves recovery outcomes.
  • My patient’s condition isn’t serious enough for MAT: The medications and their dosage can be individualized to meet each person’s needs.

Another common misunderstanding is that pregnant and postpartum women can’t take MAT. They can. In fact, it is recommended by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology that pregnant patients with opioid use disorder participate in MAT during and after pregnancy.

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Opioid Addiction Treatment and Stigma in the Rooms

group counseling for opioidsTony, a participant of Narcotics Anonymous, felt there was a stigma in the meetings. “I remember attending my first few NA meetings. I told them I was on MAT. Someone came up to me at the end of the meeting and told me that I can’t work the steps until I’m off drugs. I stopped going and it definitely affected my recovery.”

That experience is unfortunately common. Some 12-step groups may contend that MAT is prolonging addiction and that the associated medications are addictive. This is untrue.

The belief that MAT isn’t clean by the standards of 12-step recovery is also a particularly harmful myth. It is an approved treatment approach and one of the most effective treatments for opioid use disorder.

If you or someone you love is experiencing a substance use disorder, help is available. Call 800-530-0431Who Answers? today to speak with a treatment specialist.

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