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Social Problem: Substance Use Disorders (SUDs)

Substance use disorders (SUDs) have been a significant public health concern in the United States. In 2017 about 5.6 % of Americans, 12 or older, admitted to having some symptoms of an alcohol use disorder, and about 2.7 % reported symptoms of illicit drug use disorder (Witte et al., 2018). However, there is poor health-seeking behavior for individuals with SUDs. Research indicates that stigma contributes to these poor health-seeking behavior, and thus most people are undiagnosed and untreated (Witte et al., 2018). People with SUDs suffer high public stigma and discrimination levels that lead to poor socialization and adherence to treatment. The public fears the negative emotions and beliefs of people with SUD, leading to stereotyping, prejudicial views, distancing, and discrimination in providing healthcare services (Witte et al., 2018). Society blames people with SUDs for antisocial behavior and considers them dangerous compared to those with other forms of mental, behavioral conditions.

The rationale for Selecting Social Problem

Individuals who use illegal drugs encounter prejudice and discrimination in seeking and receiving health services. The healthcare providers are not keen on engaging the patients and involving them in critical care services. Research shows that SUD patients suffer severe health, financial, and housing issues that affect their access to quality care (Virokannas, 2020). Moreover, some hospitals turn SUD patients away or define them as a liability, leading to poor discharge planning and discontinuation of care.

State and Federal Policies that Impact the Social Problem

Substance users are often the most stigmatized people amongst those with behavioral disorders in society. SUDs are the few psychiatric disorders that society views as a criminal justice issue rather than a health care issue requiring urgent intervention. Society considers its choice rather than an illness. Patients have to choose treatment, discharge plan, and post-acute care services offered within a care continuum. The federal and state policies support different facilities such as home health agencies, skilled nursing facilities, inpatient rehabs, and long-term care facilities in treating patients with SUDs. The Social Security Act and the Medicare Hospital Conditions Participation allow patients to choose their desired care providers. Individuals with a history of SUDs and experiencing stigma are discharged or transferred to federal and state-supported mental health facilities to continue care and to receive unbiased support. However, some facilities deem individuals with SUDs as a liability and, as a result, hinder any home care setup and possible outpatient service, affecting the care continuum.

Specific Methods to Address the Social Problems

Society should support efforts to alter the widely held stigmatizing views towards persons who have SUDs. Some specific methods to address the social issue are through education. Various educational programs should be used as tool to minimize the stigma, including programs that integrate educational factsheets, handouts having positive stories of revering persons, and other kinds of programs (Witte et al., 2018). Additionally, pre-professionals, such as medical or nursing students, need to be equipped through patient support programs to fight stigma in their profession. Some programs meant for pre-professionals can comprise training sessions where there is a person recovering from SUDs to humanize the condition, thus reducing the existing stigma. Offering educational courses to undergraduates before they enter the field can assist in combating stigmatizing attitudes towards individuals with SUDs or recovering from SUDs.

How the Agency and Student Can Advocate to Change the Social Problem

Substance use disorders are psychiatric conditions that society views as a criminal justice problem rather than a health care issue. Therefore, healthcare providers should be educated and receive regular training on treatment and support for patients with SUDs (Rotgers, 2013). Students and the agency can advocate to change this social problem and adhere to the national association of social worker’s code of ethics. As social workers, we should stick to ethical standards and respect each person’s inherent dignity and worth to our clients and the broader society (NASW, 2017). We should also seek to resolve conflicts based on a society’s interests consistent with our profession’s values, and ethical principles and standards.


National Association of Social Workers. (2017). NASW code of ethics. Retrieved Month, Day, Year, from

Rotgers, F. (2013). Negative reactions to substance-using clients: Where the reactions come from, what they are, and what to do about them. In A. W. Wolf, M. R. Goldfried, & J. C. Muran (Eds.), Transforming negative reactions to clients: From frustration to compassion. (pp. 245–268). American Psychological Association.

Virokannas, E. (2020). Treatment Barriers to Social and Health Care Services from the Standpoint of Female Substance Users in Finland. Journal of Social Service Research46(4), 484–495.

Witte, T. H., Schroeder, C. C., & Hackman, C. L. (2018). Stigma and Substance Use: Can Undergraduate Instruction in Addiction Studies Change Stigmatizing Attitudes? Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education62(3), 8–15.


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