The Harmful Effects of Stigma

People with substance use disorders face a lot of adversity. On top of daily battles, they may be dealing with shame, guilt, hopelessness, and isolation. The last thing people deserve is to feel judged or misunderstood.

Sadly, this is what happens with stigmatizing language.

The Impact of What We Say

When we refer to people with substance use disorders, our language can contribute to the stigma by reinforcing negative stereotypes.

Stigma is a major barrier to treatment and recovery for those struggling with substance use disorders, as people who feel stigmatized are less likely to seek help. And when people do receive treatment, they are still faced with shameful language which can hurt their long-term recovery.

It’s more important than ever to be mindful of our language when discussing substance use disorders.

woman isolated feeling shame and stigma from those behind her

Best Language Practices for Reducing Stigma

By becoming more mindful of our language, we can help to reduce the stigma around substance use disorders.

For example, using the word “addict” instead of “person with a substance use disorder” reinforces the idea that people with these disorders are powerless and hopeless. Instead of calling someone an “addict,” say “person with substance use disorder.

When we are more careful and selective with our words, we uphold the crucial and challenging reality for people with substance use disorders, thereby advocating the imperativeness and value of recovery and support.

Here’s What We Can Do: 

Reflect on our own biases

To reduce the stigma, we must first reflect on our personal biases. How do our words reflect our beliefs? What if my loved one was struggling with addiction? Once we know our biases, we can start changing our language surrounding substance use disorders. 

Never use derogatory terms

Avoid using derogatory terms and instead focus on the facts. For example, using terms like “junkie” or “addict” can make it seem like these disorders are a choice or a moral failing when, in reality, they are serious medical conditions requiring treatment.

Use compassionate, supportive & strength-based language

Instead of using stigmatizing language, we can use words that convey compassion and support when discussing substance use disorders.

Compassionate language acknowledges the struggle with substance use disorders people face. It expresses empathy and understanding for their situation. Supportive language conveys respect and encouragement.

Additionally, strength-based language focuses on the individual’s strengths and resilience. It encourages and humanizes those struggling, offering hope instead of shame.

Use “person-first” language

Using person-first language can help reduce the negative beliefs and attitudes that fuel the stigma. For example, instead of saying “former addict,” say “a person in recovery.”

This may seem like a small change, but it makes a huge difference in considering the whole person. It suggests that the person is more than their disorder and more than a mere label. It enables them to hear the silent “hope” in “long-term recovery.”

Stay current with language changes

How we talk about addiction and mental health directly impacts how these issues are perceived.

For example, consider the term “abuser.” This word has a negative connotation, often used to describe someone at fault. However, this does not accurately represent what addiction is or the human being affected by it.

Addiction is serious and deserves the necessary treatment to give people their lives back. While language can change over time, this fact never will.

two friends discussing stigma on a couch

Flipping the Script of Stigma

Substance use disorders are often fraught with stigma, and when we use stigmatizing language, we reinforce beliefs rooted in shame. This only serves to further alienate and isolate those who are struggling.

We must do better. We must be more compassionate and understanding. Only then can we hope to reduce the stigma of substance use disorders and make progress in helping those affected.

Georgia Strait Women’s Clinic is a top-rated treatment centre for women in British Columbia. We offer treatment for substance use, mental health, PTSD, and trauma. If you’re struggling with mental health and/or addiction, visit our website or call us today to learn more about our programs and how we can support you.