BACKGROUND: Young people from the former Soviet Union (FSU) in the U.S. are engaging in opioid and injection drug use (IDU) in substantial numbers, paralleling nationwide trends. Yet opioid-using FSU immigrants face distinctive acculturation challenges, including perceived stigmatisation as drug users within their immigrant communities, which may exacerbate the negative health and psychosocial consequences of such use.
METHODS: This qualitative study draws on semi-structured interviews with 26 FSU immigrant young adults (ages 18-29) living in New York City who reported opioid use in the past month and/or were currently in treatment for opioid use disorder. Interviews probed youths’ drug use histories, immigration/acculturation experiences, family and peer relationships, and service utilisation. Interviews or focus groups were also conducted with 12 FSU mothers of opioid-using youth and 20 service providers familiar with the FSU population. In a content-based thematic analysis, verbatim transcripts were coded for salient themes.
RESULTS: All three participant groups emphasized that stigma towards drug users within the FSU community is pervasive and acute, in contrast to the cultural acceptance of heavy drinking, and is rooted in punitive Soviet-era drug policies, fostering widespread ignorance about drugs and addiction. Young adults and service providers reported instances in which anticipation of community stigmatisation deterred youth from accessing drug treatment and harm reduction services. Similarly, stigma contributed to parents’ failure to recognize early signs of their children’s opioid problems and their reluctance to seek drug treatment for their children until opioid use had become severe. Young adults described how drug-use stigma is frequently internalized, leading to shame and loss of self-esteem.
CONCLUSION: Findings indicate an urgent need for community-wide education about drugs within FSU immigrant communities, and suggest specific service modalities that may be less stigmatizing for youth, such as peer-delivered syringe exchange and harm reduction education, and technology-based interventions that can be accessed privately and discreetly.
“Not human, dead already”: Perceptions and experiences of drug-related stigma among opioid-using young adults from the former Soviet Union living in the U.S.
International Journal of Drug Policy, 38, 63-72. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2016.10.012. PMCID: PMC5302021.