IU study finds meaningful contact with those with addiction can reduce stigma
Many Americans say they know someone who has battled drug addiction. And meaningful social contact with people who have experienced addiction can effectively reduce prejudice and discrimination, according to preliminary findings from Indiana University researchers.
The study, conducted by Brea Perry, professor of sociology at IU, used data from the Person to Person (P2P) Health Interview Study, a statewide representative, face-to-face survey, to assesses negative stereotypes, attitudes and behaviors that affect people with opioid use disorder, their families and friends, and healthcare providers. As of August 2020, around 1,800 respondents had completed the survey.
Preliminary findings suggest that 63 percent of Indiana residents have known someone personally who has struggled with drug addiction. Additionally, nearly half, 44 percent, currently have someone in their personal social network experiencing drug addiction, including many with a close tie such as a family member, (29 percent) or friend (18 percent).
Importantly, the researchers found that the likelihood of exposure to drug addiction through social relationships varies across groups. Younger people, those living in rural counties, and those in lower socioeconomic groups are significantly more likely to have known someone with a drug addiction problem.
This is important, Perry said, because people who have known someone with drug addiction are less inclined to socially reject or isolate those who have opioid dependence, especially if they have a closer relationship with that person.
"Knowing someone who has struggled with drug addiction is associated with holding less stigmatizing attitudes toward nonmedical opioid use on some dimensions," Perry said. "For example, those with a friend or family member with drug addiction problems are more likely than those who don't to be okay with such a person marrying into their family, living next door or socializing for an evening. Along the same lines, those with personal knowledge of someone with addiction are significantly more likely to say that such people can be good parents."
In other ways, though, the study found that knowing someone is not always linked to lower levels of stigma. For example, knowing someone whose behavior appears to confirm harmful stereotypes rather than disconfirm them (those who’ve had negative interactions with people with drug problems) is not associated with lower levels of stigma.
Perry said when the interaction or contact with the person with drug use issues is meaningful or positive, it has a more desired effect on stigmatizing attitudes. That is why it is important, she said, for anti-stigma interventions to find ways to foster positive interactions in the community.
"This study shows that meaningful social contact with a person in a stigmatized group can effectively reduce prejudice and discrimination," Perry said. "The more we not only openly talk about substance use, but get to know people with substance use issues on a deeper level, the closer we will get to reducing stigma around this issue. It is critical that the public understands that many people struggling with drug addiction make important positive contributions to their families, workplaces, and communities."
Perry and her team are continuing to collect data and have added a web-based survey to the study in order to reach more people.
Anne Krendl, associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at IU, and Bernice Pescosolido, a distinguished professor of sociology at IU are collaborators on the study.