Stigma regarding substance use persists

Drugs, Alcohol

Emmi Kauppila & Annuska Dal Maso, A-Clinic Foundation
Published 28 Jun 2023

Finland records the highest number of drug-related fatalities among its youth population in Europe, with almost thirty percent of fatalities being individuals under twenty-five years old. This highlights an urgent need for Finnish society to introspect and take action. In this article, we discuss current insights on tackling this issue through reducing stigma associated with substance use.

Interventions and calls for action

The Finnish approach to reducing drug-related deaths, as outlined by the National Institute for Health and Welfare, includes stigma reduction as a key strategy. Eliminating stigmatization should be addressed in various ways including through media representation, healthcare practices, and workplace policies.

Persistent stigma towards people who use drugs has been observed across Finnish society. Two recent reports by A-Clinic Foundation analyzed Finnish people’s viewpoints regarding substance use. First, the report Even one death is too many investigated experiences of help-seeking among young adults who use drugs. The results indicated issues in healthcare service encounters, revealing several instances where interviewees reported facing stigma and receiving sub-par treatment because of their history with drugs. Second, a population survey explored Finnish people’s outlook on substance use. The findings indicate discriminatory attitudes: more than 50% of respondents classified individuals grappling with substance use as criminals, while a notable proportion (44%) expressed preference for referring to them as “junkies” (narkomaani in Finnish).

In relation to stigma reduction, the importance of language has long been recognized – the choice of words can affect how individuals grappling with substance use are perceived, treated and ultimately ostracized by society. Still, we witness on a regular basis media portrayals depicting people who use drugs in a derogatory manner, including stereotypes portraying them as immoral or criminal while ignoring their difficult experiences. Additionally, such portrayals often disregard social and structural factors affecting individual circumstances for recovery efforts. To address this issue, a group of social and health care NGOs specialized on harm reduction and substance abuse prevention (the Network for Preventive Substance Abuse Work) emphasizes the detrimental effects of stigmatizing language. The network has published media guidelines aiming to promote stigma-free language concerning people who use drugs

A way forward

To tackle the negative impact of stigma associated with substance use, we recommend actively pursuing the following goals:

Education and Awareness: Conduct public campaigns and educational programs to raise awareness and provide accurate information about substance use disorders. Challenge stereotypes, promote empathy, and understanding to reduce stigma.

Peer Support: Establish peer support programs where individuals with lived experience of substance use can provide non-judgmental and empathetic support to others facing similar challenges. Empower individuals to advocate for their rights and challenge stigmatizing attitudes.

Collaboration with Stakeholders: Encourage collaboration between government agencies, healthcare professionals, community organizations, and people with lived experience. Develop comprehensive strategies that address stigma holistically, ensuring policies and interventions are informed by those affected by substance use stigma.

Legal and Social Reforms: Implement progressive drug policies, such as decriminalization, focusing on public health approaches rather than punitive measures. Shift the focus from punishment to harm reduction and rehabilitation. Promote social inclusion to reduce marginalization and stigma faced by individuals who use drugs.


This article is written by

Emmi Kauppila, Researcher at A-Clinic Foundation, Doctoral Researcher at Tampere University

Annuska Dal Maso, Head of Social Street Work at A-Clinic Foundation

on the request of PopNAD