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Overcoming Stigma: Addressing the Opioid Epidemic’s Unique Impact on the Black Community

Substance use disorder (SUD) is a significant concern in the United States, affecting people from all backgrounds, ethnicities, races, and nationalities. However, the opioid epidemic has had a disproportionate impact on the black community, making it a crucial topic for discussion and a chance to combat associated stigmas.

The opioid crisis has become a true public health emergency in the United States, with current rates of use 5x greater today than they were in 1999. And in the Black community, the impact of these surging rates of opioid dependence has been particularly devastating, with 3.4% of the total African American population suffering from the disease. 

In order to break the stigma of addiction among African Americans, we first have to understand what the crisis looks like in this community – and the unique challenges faced by Black individuals in terms of opioid misuse. With that in mind, here’s what to know about the realities of opioid dependence and the stigma-based barriers to treatment and recovery. 

The Impact of the Opioid Crisis Among African Americans

Opioid use disorder is a tricky and pervasive illness, no matter who it affects. In the African American community, individuals face rates of dependence that are higher than those among whites – and, in many cases, more deadly too. 

According to CDC data, between 2016 and 2017, overdose deaths due to opioids increased by 25% among Black Americans, compared to 11% among whites. And in the years since, there has been an additional rise in opioid misuse among African Americans, with an estimated 1.3 million Black individuals misusing pain relievers in 2019 and an additional 96,000 using heroin. 

As can be expected, the African American opioid epidemic has had a far-reaching impact on the African American community. This includes a physical, mental, and emotional toll at degrees not seen among whites. There are multiple reasons for this, starting with reduced access to high-quality substance use treatment for Black Americans and the cultural stigma associated with addiction. It’s also essential to consider the ongoing effects of the U.S. government’s “War on Drugs” in Black communities, which has resulted in large rates of incarceration, economic instability, and trauma. 

These and other factors have led to drug use rates that exceed those found among whites. And while substance use treatment may be hard to access in African American communities, substances themselves are not.

Understanding the Stigma Associated with Addiction in Black Communities 

Wherever you find drug use, you are likely to also come across some sort of stigma related to it. Unfortunately, this stigma is particularly profound among African Americans, many of whom experience the double stigma of feeling like they cannot openly discuss struggles with mental illness with their peers and feeling like their substance use issues are taken less seriously than those of non-minority groups. 

The stigma associated with addiction in Black communities does more than create a barrier to treatment. It also serves as an additional systemic hurdle to overall well-being among Black youth and adults, with echoing generational effects in schooling, finances, safety, and access to food and general healthcare. 

Because they are less likely to ask for – and receive – help for opioid dependence, African Americans are being left behind in the fight against the crisis. As such, it’s impossible to fully address the opioid epidemic without referencing how it plays out in Black communities and ensuring that Black individuals receive equal access to substance use treatment. 

How to Break the Stigma of Addiction: First Steps 

The battle against opioid addiction is a tricky one, but there are plenty of people putting up a strong fight, especially within the community itself. 

Current initiatives include:

  • Increasing access to evidence-based, interdisciplinary pain treatments
  • Promoting substance use treatment as an alternative to incarceration
  • Eliminating barriers to treatment in African American communities

There has also been the development of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) under the National Institutes of Health. This department focuses specifically on the relationship between racial disparities and health, with policy decisions that seek to minimize this disparity and provide more equitable health outcomes across the board. 

There is no quick fix for opioid use disorder or substance use disorder. However,  culturally-competent treatment and support services supported by community leaders, providers, and policymakers are a must-have first step in breaking the stigma of addiction among African Americans and providing Black individuals with the care they need. 

What’s Next?

It may never be possible to remove the stigma surrounding substance dependence in Black communities completely or to undo the generations of trauma and racism that have led us to this point. However, every step in the right direction matters in the complex and challenging fight against opioid use. 

Addressing opioid use in the Black community must be a collective effort that takes into account not just current rates of addiction but the reasons they are higher among these individuals in the first place. At Retreat Behavioral Health, we hope to help do our part with substance use treatment that addresses not just the illness itself but the mental, emotional, and societal triggers that led to it. Please contact us to learn more about our services and our commitment to ensuring better access to treatment for all.