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How to Talk About Substance Use Disorder

Words matter when it comes to substance use disorder. Negative attitudes, stereotypes, and discrimination against individuals struggling with a substance use disorders (SUD) often lead to social judgment and barriers to seeking help or support. This stigma is often supported by harmful language and words still commonly used today within social communities of people who struggle with substance use disorder.


Using person-first language and avoiding common negative terms can help destigmatize the disease so that individuals feel safe enough to seek help.



Understanding Stigma and Substance Use Disorder

The stigma of SUD refers to the negative attitudes, misconceptions, and discrimination directed toward individuals who struggle with substance use or addiction. Through stigma, society often labels individuals with addiction as morally weak, lacking willpower, or being irresponsible. This stigma often leads to shame, isolation, and marginalization.


Stigma obstructs access to necessary support and resources. The fear of being judged by society may prevent those affected from seeking critical medical care, counseling, or support networks. As a result, people might hide their condition, worsening their situation and diminishing their chances of recovery.


The impact of stigma extends beyond the individual to their families and loved ones. The social stigma surrounding SUDs can lead to strained relationships, isolation, and limited social support networks for both the individual and their families.


How to Change Substance Use Disorder Stigma Through Conversation

By combating stigma, promoting empathy, and creating safe spaces for open dialogue, we can help break down barriers, encourage people to seek help without fear of judgment, and ultimately support their journey toward recovery and well-being.


Terms to Avoid

Avoid using stigmatizing language that convays negative stereotypes or labels, such as "addict," "junkie," or "abuser." These terms carry judgmental connotations and can evoke feelings of shame. Instead, opt for person-first language, acknowledging the individual first rather than defining them by their condition. Use terms like "person with substance use disorder," "individual in recovery," or "someone facing addiction."


Addressing Stigma When You Hear It

When confronted with stigma, you can combat these misconceptions by responding with empathy, understanding, and factual information. Start by acknowledging the harmful nature of the words without assigning blame or judgment. Engage in open conversations to educate others, sharing accurate information about SUD as a complex health condition rather than a moral failing. Highlight that addiction is a medical issue involving changes in the brain, and like any other health condition, it requires compassion, support, and proper treatment.


If appropriate, offering personal stories and experiences can humanize the issue and illustrate that substance use disorder affects individuals from all walks of life. Encourage empathy by emphasizing that people facing addiction deserve understanding, respect, and access to resources for recovery without fear of discrimination.

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