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Report challenges stigmatisation of people with problematic alcohol and drug use

13 Apr 2018

Stigma and discrimination can cause far-reaching, long-term harm to people living with problematic alcohol and other drug use, making it difficult for them to seek help and recover.

The Queensland Mental Health Commission today released Changing attitudes, changing lives, a report on the impact of stigma and discrimination on people experiencing problematic alcohol and other drug (AOD) use, including options for reform.

The report found stigma and discrimination was pervasive in a wide range of settings including within health care, welfare and support services, often long after substance use has stopped.

It also found that there was potential for stigmatising attitudes to affect the way policies, laws and practices were implemented.

Stigmatising portrayal in the media was identified as inadvertently creating barriers to people seeking help and potentially further entrenching negative community attitudes.

The report outlines 18 options for reform focused on human rights, social inclusion, engagement of people with lived experience, service access, the justice system and economic participation. It provides evidence-based policy advice to inform discussion and action.

Mental Health Commissioner Ivan Frkovic said stigma and discrimination has a profound negative effect on individuals, often leading to them being excluded and marginalised, both in their personal and family relationships as well as in employment and other areas of community life.

“We need to challenge stereotypes and see problematic AOD use as a public health issue, not a moral or criminal one,” he said.

“Queenslanders from all walks of life use alcohol, tobacco and other legal and illicit drugs.

“Most people, most of the time, don’t experience harm, but when people fall into problematic use and dependency, they can be shunned, considered blameworthy and dangerous.

“This can be distressing, and can make people feel a sense of worthlessness and hopelessness, that can trigger a vicious cycle of further problematic AOD use.

“Often we fail to separate the person from the alcohol or drug use itself, or see this as a health issue.”

Rebecca Lang, Chief Executive of the Queensland Network of Alcohol and Drug Agencies (QNADA), said that as a community, we have a duty to ensure people are treated fairly and have access to the support they need.

“People experiencing problematic substance use—and their families—are discriminated against in many facets of their lives, compounding exclusion and disadvantage,” she said.

“It’s important to emphasise that recovery is the norm, and people who have experienced problematic substance use can go on to live full and contributing lives as part of their family and community.”

Mr Frkovic said stigma could be overt or subtle, but its complexity required a wide-ranging approach to achieve change.

Reform options include:

  • anti-stigma training for social services workforces, such as health, housing, child safety and justice, as well as police
  • measures to address potentially discriminatory provisions in Queensland law
  • better engagement of people with lived experience of problematic AOD use in service design and delivery
  • public awareness campaigns and media guidelines
  • actions to foster more supportive workplaces.

Mr Frkovic said some options could be put into action immediately, while others would require further policy discussion and consideration.

The Commission’s reform options are based on government and community consultation, as well as research by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. Both reports are available at