Recap: Changing Perceptions of Substance Use Disorders at The Stigma of Addiction Summit

Matthew Stefanko
A screenshot from a Zoom presentation at the Stigma Summit, showing three women in discussion

COVID-19 has made our country’s addiction crisis a lot worse. But even before the pandemic, the social isolation and shame experienced by people with substance use disorders was already high. Stigma is often overlooked, but in order to end the addiction crisis, it must be meaningfully addressed. That’s why Shatterproof, in partnership with The National Academy of Medicine (NAM) and Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin (DMS), held the first annual Stigma of Addiction Summit on June 10, 2021.

Over 4,500 individuals from across the country registered to attend the Stigma of Addiction Summit, and leading experts from universities, health systems, nonprofit organizations, and government participated in the virtual summit as presenters and speakers. The Summit helped showcase the exciting initiatives developing in this field while identifying vital areas for future research.

The day began with welcome remarks from Shatterproof’s CEO, Gary Mendell, as well as Dean Clay Johnston (DMS) and Dr. Victor Dzau (NAM), followed by an inspiring panel of individuals with lived experience, moderated by the First Lady of North Dakota, Kathryn Burgum. Then, six concurrent sessions, all of which provided continuing medical education credit for those who participated, covered topics like stigma in the health care setting, and the differences in experience those who use drugs face versus those who are in recovery from a substance use disorder.

Following these discussions, an innovation session showcased six highly promising interventions to eliminate stigma. These six sessions were selected from approximately 100 applications. The winners included a variety of organizations, including universities and nonprofit organizations. The submissions demonstrated solutions for healthcare providers, caregivers, those with a substance use disorder, and much, much more. To learn more about these initiatives, and to access free resources, watch the winning presentations here.

The half-day Summit concluded with remarks from the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s Acting Director, Regina LaBelle, and the Henry Putnam University Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University, Dr. Keith Wailoo. Dr. Wailoo delivered a historical review of stigma and its origins, with a deep reflection on how racism was the original mechanism used to stigmatize drug use. He discussed how drug use policy rapidly shifted when White Americans began experiencing the negative harms of substance use, ending the day by demonstrating how much progress has been made as well as how much further we must all go.

While the day itself held importance to those who attended, ensuring the event generated action was even more critical for those involved in planning it. In addition to all eligible participants receiving continuing medical education credit, The National Academy of Medicine will be delivering a “Discussion Proceedings” publication providing background information on the event, a meeting summary, and, most critically, outlining key themes from the event and areas of future focus. Shatterproof will utilize this publication to galvanize future work and host additional events to lead the field.   

Shatterproof’s CEO, Gary Mendell began the day by offering the following remark: “There may be no truer expression of humanity than opening our hearts to those experiencing stigma due to their substance use disorder.” The Summit’s participants, presenters, and organizers demonstrated this humanity repeatedly throughout the day, and the solutions offered represent our best efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate the stigma so unjustly associated with the disease of addiction.


Matthew Stefanko is the Director of Shatterproof’s National Stigma Initiative.