Date Presented 04/01/2022

Although substance use disorders (SUDs) affect millions of Americans, there are many barriers to receiving treatment. It is important to understand how OT practitioners’ perceptions of SUDs relate to knowledge and skills to identify and provide treatment. Survey results of 116 OT practitioners indicate that although there is interest in working with this population, a disparity of confidence and knowledge about SUDs signifies a need for further research and education.

Primary Author and Speaker: Amy Mattila

Additional Authors and Speakers: Gabriella Santacecilia, Rebecca Lacroix

PURPOSE: Substance use disorders (SUDs) remain an ongoing serious public health concern. In 2020, it was estimated that 59.3 million Americans ages 12 and older reported using illicit drugs within the past year [1]. While so many are experiencing use of SUDs in some way, not nearly enough individuals seek treatment due to the stigma associated with use or a lack of properly trained and educated healthcare professionals [1]. A literature review provides evidence that negative attitudes and stigma towards individuals with SUDs present a barrier to the identification and treatment of this relatively common illness. The attitudes and behaviors that persist within the general population, as well as the structural stigma and bias that exists within healthcare, the criminal justice system, and among employers, leads individuals with substance use disorders and their loved ones to hide their illness and delay seeking treatment for fear of discrimination and labeling [2]. This study aims to describe how OT practitioners’ own perceptions around knowledge and attitudes regarding SUDs may impact the future care of these clients.

DESIGN: The study utilized survey methodology and exploratory descriptive analysis.

METHOD: A survey was sent to practicing occupational therapists in a variety of settings. Instruments utilized from the evidence included questions examining demographics and practice settings, the Alcohol and Alcohol Problems Perceptions Questionnaire and the Mental Health Problems Perceptions Questions by Glasgow Caledonian University, and the Medical Regard Scale. An online survey platform was used to collect and analyze data using descriptive statistics.

RESULTS: 280 surveys were sent to potential participants, 116 were returned (41.43% response rate). Respondents were primarily from acute care and rehab settings, but represented all areas of practice with a mean of 6-10 years’ experience. The majority of respondents reported no formal training in treating clients with SUDs (68%). In terms of attitudes around working with this population: a fraction reported a preference not to work with patients experiencing SUDs or finding them ‘irritating’ to work with (13.79% and 11.03%, respectively), while 62.07% reported they felt especially compassionate towards this population. In terms of treatment, 72.41% felt that insurance plans should cover patients like this to the same degree that they cover patients with other conditions; however, only 62.93% felt comfortable enough to find ways to help individuals with SUDs. When it came to knowledge around working with SUDs, just over half of respondents reported a true working knowledge of SUDs and SUDs related problems (53.45%). In terms of roles and responsibilities, while 48.28% felt they had a clear idea of the role of OT in treating SUDs, 74.14% shared that caring for this population was important to the profession.

CONCLUSION: Participant’s responses generally indicated that while there is an interest and desire to work with and treat individuals with SUDs, the knowledge and comfort level to do so successfully is lacking. There is also still a clear stigma that exists within at least part of the profession around these clients. Findings of this study suggest that continued research and education is necessary for OTs to represent a critical role in the solution to this public health crisis.

IMPACT STATEMENT: Understanding the current status of OT’s knowledge and perceptions around treatment of SUDs is vital for increasing the understanding and behaviors of practitioners to address the needs of this population. Working towards a common goal to effectively treat and provide accessibility to de-stigmatized care for these clients both meet AOTA’s Vision 2025 [3].


1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2021). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results From the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. (PEP 20-07-01-001) [Data Set] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

2. Dyregrov, K., & Selseng, L. B. (2021). “Nothing to mourn, He was just a drug addict”-Stigma towards people bereaved by drug-related death. Addiction Research & Theory, 1-11.

3. American Occupational Therapy Association. (2017). Vision 2025. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 71, 7103420010.