Original Article

Public Perceptions of Substance Abuse and How Problems Are Resolved: Implications for Medical and Public Health Services

Authors: Jalie A. Tucker, PhD, MPH, H Russell Foushee, PhD, Cathy A. Simpson, PhD


Background: Increasing utilization and appeal of substance abuse services requires understanding public perceptions of substance abuse and problem resolution.

Method: A statewide survey (N = 439) assessed public views of the prevalence of problems, service utilization, and outcomes using random digit dialing sampling.

Results: Compared with population data, the sample overestimated the prevalence of alcohol and drug problems, accurately gauged rates of help-seeking for substance-related problems, and underestimated rates of recovery, particularly natural resolutions without treatment. Perceived influences on help-seeking included extrinsic pressures like legal problems and wanting help with problems of living related to substance misuse.

Conclusions: Substance abuse is less prevalent and less intractable than the public perceives, and natural resolutions are common, but appear to be largely hidden from the public view. Implications for reducing barriers and expanding services in healthcare and public health settings are discussed.

Key Points

* Expanding services for alcohol and drug problems depends on understanding public perceptions of substance abuse and how problems are resolved.

* A statewide telephone survey indicated that adults accurately perceived that help-seeking is uncommon, but underestimated the prevalence of recovery, particularly natural recovery without treatment.

* Health communications to correct public misconceptions about substance abuse, in combination with evidence-based practices, hold promise for extending the reach of services for these stigmatized disorders in medical and public health settings.

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