Destigmatize Relapse
Marketing Messaging that Increases Admissions

Bottom Line

Addiction treatment facilities that proactively break the stigma of not only addiction – but relapse too – in marketing messaging will build a stronger emotional connection with millennials, encouraging them to reach out for help one more time.


For many of those searching for addiction treatment, this isn’t their first rodeo. The situation they are commonly facing is that they or a loved one have relapsed, and they are looking for the treatment provider that is going to help them get back on track with their recovery. This is an opportunity to increase admissions that many treatment providers don’t use to their advantage.

Stigma: A Wedge Between Need and Addiction Treatment

The Need for Treatment

There is a large market for addiction treatment services, and it is a sad reality that many patients will relapse and need additional services. According to 2017 research by The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:1

Approximately 13.6 million adults aged 26 or older struggled with a substance use disorder

The same study reports that about 10.6 million adults aged 26 and older had an alcohol use disorder and about 4.3 million adults aged 26 or older had an illicit drug use disorder

In 2017, an estimated 20.7 million people aged 12 and older needed treatment for a substance use disorder

Only 20% of People Who Need Treatment Receive It

But of those people, not all of them received treatment. In some cases, treatment was not available, but in many more cases the stigma attached to substance abuse treatment prevents people from engaging with treatment centers.

Only 4 million people received treatment, or about 19% of those who needed it.1

In 2017, of the more than 18 million people who needed but did not receive treatment for substance use, only 1 million, or 5.7%, of those people felt they needed treatment.1

In 2018, among the estimated 18.9 million people who needed substance use treatment but didn’t get it, about 964,000 knew they needed treatment. 392,000 of them tried to get treatment but didn’t succeed. 573,000 didn’t try to get treatment.2 That’s almost one million admissions that are being missed by treatment centers every year.

Stigma Keeps People from Addiction Treatment

An inability or failure to obtain treatment reinforces destructive patterns of low self-esteem, isolation, and hopelessness. Stigma tragically deprives people of their dignity and interferes with their full participation in society.3

Stigma results in:

Prejudice and discrimination 

Fear and shame

Distrust and disgrace 

Stereotyping and rejection 

Anger and frustration 

Avoidance of treatment and inadequate coverage

Ostracism and denial of rights

The Prevalence of Relapse

Nearly half of those seeking treatment relapse according to The relapse rate for substance use disorders is estimated to be between 40% and 60% which issimilar to rates of relapse for other chronic diseases such as hypertension or asthma.2 This is an unfortunate reality, even for those with the best of intentions, substance abuse is an ongoing addiction that can require more than one treatment cycle.

However, addiction is considered a highly treatable disease, and recovery is attainable. About 10% of American adults who are at least 18 years old say they are in recovery from an alcohol or drug abuse issue.2

The Battle Against Addiction

Numerous reputable studies have indicated that stigma is one of the main reasons people avoid treatment. A 2007 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that 37% of college students avoided seeking help for addiction because they feared social stigma.3

Stigma in Employment and Insurance Benefits 

A 2014 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that Americans are more likely to have negative opinions of people with substance use disorders than they are of those with mental illnesses. Participants were also less likely to approve housing or provide insurance or employment benefits that supported individuals affected by addiction compared with individuals affected by other mental illnesses.3

Of the 709 respondents to the survey:

  • 62% would work with someone with a mental illness 62% 62%
  • Only 22% would work with someone with a substance use disorder 22% 22%
  • 75% believed employers shouldn’t be able to deny employment to those affected by a mental illness 75% 75%
  • Only 36% believed employers shouldn’t be able to deny employment to people affected by addiction 36% 36%
  • 79% would give those with mental illness the same health insurance benefits as otherwise healthy individuals 79% 79%
  • Only 57% would give those with substance use disorders the same health insurance benefits as otherwise healthy individuals 57% 57%

Stigma Makes Addiction Worse 

Stigma can also make the addiction itself worse. A study in the 2014 Journal of Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research found that when people with substance use disorders perceived social rejection or discrimination, it increased their feelings of depression or anxiety.3 So, stigma creates, or increases, mood disorders. And, people with co-occurring substance abuse and mood disorders perceived more negative attitudes against them.3 That’s a vicious cycle we need to break.

Stigmatizing Yourself: The Internal Battle 

There are various types of stigma attached to addiction treatment, but one of the most impactful is stigma from within the addiction sufferer’s mind. Recovery from addiction is not easy and people encounter numerous obstacles including:

Medical problems

Psychological challenges

Family issues

Legal problems

Work related issues 

Addicted people’s lives have become unmanageable. They most likely are experiencing low self-esteem because of the recognition of how much they have hurt themselves and others. They may feel like a victim or blame themselves and feel like they can’t get better, or that they don’t deserve to.

It is not the belief of others, it is the stigma within that affects me the greatest. It is the deeply-rooted disdain that seems to be threaded within the fabric of my being that stagnates my progress. It reveals its ugly face when I perceive that what I have to offer is not substantial. It is the belief that I am not worthy or good enough. It is the belief that I don’t have what it takes to make it. 4
Marianne Ali

Kitchen Manager, D.C. Central Kitchen, Washington D.C.

Language Matters: Stigma of “Substance Abuser” vs. “Having a Substance Use Disorder” 

Stigma also comes in external forms. In a survey by the Recovery Research Institute, 314 individuals responded to 35 questions related to how they perceived or felt about two people “actively using drugs and alcohol.”4 One person was referred to as a “substance abuser”, and the other was referred to as “having a substance use disorder”. No further information was given about these hypothetical individuals.
Participants in the study felt, overall, that the “substance abuser” was:4

Less likely to benefit from treatment

More likely to benefit from punishment

More likely to be socially threatening

More likely to be blamed for their substance-related difficulties and less likely that their peoblem was the result of an innate dysfunction over which they had no control 

More able to control their substance use without help

Strategies for Addressing Stigma 

All the clinicians that Active Marketing interviewed during our research for the Marketing Addiction Treatment to Millennials in 2020 project support this notion of working to destigmatize addiction and relapse. Marketing messaging that helps break the stigma will resonate with your target audience deeply and positively, which will make them more comfortable with reaching out for help. Here are a few important shifts in messaging that can encourage millennials to go to addiction treatment when they need it.

Demystify Treatment and Recovery

Many people believe that recovery is a pass/fail concept. Show them that recovery is a dynamic process with multiple phases that includes setbacks and progress that’s often incremental.

“The ones that haven’t been to treatment before, I think number one is they expect once they’ve gone to treatment that that’s the end of their recovery. They’re not aware of the work that it takes after the initial treatment stay to continue their recovery.”

– Melanie

Humanize Recovery 

Put a human face on the recovery concept by featuring real people. Have them share their stories, complete with successes and setbacks.

“It’s very challenging to be sober. It’s very hard when they’ve adopted this style that when life gets stressful, I resort to drugs and alcohol and that’s something that they maybe unconsciously didn’t realize was happening you know, previous to their addiction. So, like validating their experience that… it’s essentially just very challenging and it’s very common that people relapse.”

– Natasha

Address Relapse

Mention relapse not as a failure, but as a steppingstone. Mention relapse is undesired but common among chronic disorders, including addiction. Mention it does not indicate treatment failure only a chance to identify areas where their treatment needs to be strengthened.

“I have another client who just recently relapsed and she was overworking herself and not focusing on her program and not connecting to her sober community…when they relapse, they internalize like, “Oh, here we go again… I can’t get this right.” So, it’s this negative distortion…that perpetuates this negative idea of themselves.”

– Natasha

Identify Positive Outcomes 

Focus messaging on rapidly achieved positive outcomes that are smaller than full recovery.

Personal connections



Empowerment through education 


Healing damaged family relationships 



Personal growth 

Continued support network 


Drug addiction relapse rates are significantly higher than people realize. Although society has made progress in destigmatizing addiction, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to bring awareness and understanding to the fact that addiction is a disease. More specifically, that addiction, just like any other disease, comes with a significant risk of relapse. Speaking compassionately and directly to those suffering from relapse will build a stronger emotional connection with a significant part of your target audience and help you reach some of the one million admissions that the addiction treatment industry missed.

By proactively addressing stigma in marketing messaging, addiction treatment centers will increase admission and readmission rates by creating a positive brand image based on ongoing service and support.

Active Marketing: Proven Game Changers

Active Marketing has transformed addiction treatment businesses with our strategic horsepower. We have proven experience developing and executing marketing strategies that get your brand’s best messaging in front of the right people at the right time and place. Our impact on our clients’ bottom lines changes the way they do business. We’d love to talk to you more about your potential.

Give us a call today: 1 (877) 850-7177