"In their mind, they always felt less than": The role of peers in shifting stigma as a barrier to opioid use disorder treatment retention

J Subst Abuse Treat. 2022 Jul;138:108721. doi: 10.1016/j.jsat.2022.108721. Epub 2022 Jan 16.


Introduction: A substantial, national need exists for culturally acceptable, accessible opioid use disorder (OUD) treatment. Medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD) is regarded as effective in treating OUD; however, retention in MOUD programs remains low nationally. One known barrier to MOUD retention is stigma, particularly within ethno-racial minority communities. Peer recovery specialists (PRSs), individuals with shared experience in substance use and recovery, may be particularly well suited to support patients in MOUD treatment, and may have capacity to play a key role in decreasing stigma-related barriers to MOUD retention.

Methods: This study used qualitative methods to solicit feedback on how patients receiving methadone treatment (MT) experience stigma (i.e., toward substance use [SU] and MT). Study staff also gathered information regarding how a PRS role may reduce stigma and improve retention in care, including barriers and facilitators to the PRS role shifting stigma. Study staff conducted semi-structured qualitative interviews and focus groups (N = 32) with staff and patients receiving MT at an opioid treatment program as well as PRSs in Baltimore.

Results: Participants identified experiences of internalized, as well as enacted and anticipated, MT and SU stigma, and described these as barriers to treatment. Participants also identified opportunities for PRSs to shift stigma-related barriers for patients receiving MT through unique aspects of the PRS role, such as their shared lived experience.

Conclusions: Reducing stigma surrounding SUD and MT is critical for improving MOUD outcomes, and future research may consider how the PRS role can support this effort.

Keywords: Medications for opioid use disorder; Opioid use disorder; Peer recovery specialist; Stigma; Substance use.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use
  • Buprenorphine* / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Opiate Substitution Treatment
  • Opioid-Related Disorders* / drug therapy
  • Social Stigma


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Buprenorphine