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National Words Matter Week: Ending Stigma Around SUD

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Each year, the first full week of March is designated as National Words Matter Week. This is a time to consider how the language we use may impact the ways in which we view ourselves and each other. When it comes to behavioral and mental health, harmful, stigmatizing language can impact an individual’s willingness to seek treatment. It can also influence how friends, family members, and community members treat an individual—and unfortunately—it can impact the quality of care given by healthcare providers and other entities, such as law enforcement or providers of social services.   

In this post, we’ll discuss strategies to help you:

  • Recognize Stigmatizing Language
  • Replace Stigmatizing Language with Helpful Alternatives
  • Educate Your Sphere of Influence on the Importance of Destigmatizing Language

Keep reading to learn more about why the words we use matter and how we can all work together to help end the stigma around substance use disorders (SUDs) and mental health.

If you or someone you love needs help with substance use and co-occurring disorders, please call Gaudenzia’s 24-hour Treatment and Referral HelpLine at 833.976.HELP (4357) or email [email protected] today.

What is Stigma?

When it comes to behavioral and mental health, stigma refers to a bias against individuals with a mental health condition or a substance use disorder (SUD). While certain words can perpetuate stigma, language is also one of the most powerful tools we have to help us reframe our perspectives. Changing the way we talk about a person or subject can influence overt and subconscious beliefs, which ultimately influences our decisions, actions, and behaviors towards ourselves and others. Stigmatizing language around SUD often stems from the outdated belief that SUD is a moral failing, rather than a chronic — yet treatable— medical condition.

How Does Stigmatizing Language Impact People with SUDs?

Stigmatizing language tends to dehumanize or dismiss a person’s individuality while insinuating blame. Words like “junkie”, “drunk”, or “lunatic” can greatly impact how an individual thinks of themselves, and how others may perceive them. Words like these often carry strong connotations with overt or subconscious beliefs, such as perceived connections to crime, laziness, or hopeless situations with no avenues for treatment or improvement.

Stigmatizing language around SUDs can sound like:

  • Language that belittles a person in the context of their condition.
  • Language that infantilizes a person with an SUD.
  • Labels that generalize a person in the context of their condition and ignore their individuality.
  • Language or labels that dehumanize or blame an individual for their condition.

Stigmatizing language is much more than a matter of semantics. When we consistently talk about people with SUDs in a negative way, it can discourage people from seeking treatment out of fear of being labelled by society and within their personal support networks. When the friends, family members, or co-workers of an individual with an SUD hold negative or inaccurate beliefs around SUDs, it can lead to ostracization, conflict, and unnecessary strain on relationships.  

When stigmatizing language insinuates blame or a moral failing, it can cause entities like healthcare providers, law enforcement, those operating within social services and the criminal justice system, and lawmakers to create and enforce harmful, punitive policies. It can also impact funding and approval for SUD treatment and support services or programs within communities.

People-First Language in Behavioral Health 

People-first language (PFL), also referred to as person-first language, places a person before their condition or diagnosis. PFL aims to describe what a person “has,” rather than defining who a person “is” based on a condition or diagnosis. Here’s what PFL looks like in action:

In this example, we’ll assume a person who uses she/her/hers pronouns is living with a chronic health condition, like diabetes. Instead of saying, “She’s a diabetic,” a PFL approach may change this sentence to one of the following options:

  • She has diabetes.
  • She is a person with diabetes.
  • She is living with diabetes.

A chronic health condition like diabetes is generally understood to be a medical condition that may require specific lifestyle changes and/or treatment. As a result, referring to an individual as a “diabetic” likely won’t carry the same societal connotations or evoke similar biases as referring to a person with an SUD as a “junkie” or “addict” does. Understanding that SUD is a medical condition, like diabetes or heart disease, and shifting our language to more accurately reflect this can help increase support for life-saving treatment and intervention strategies.

It’s important to note that not everyone agrees on the benefits of PFL. Some critics of the approach, notably individuals in the disability community, feel that attempting to separate a person from a condition that is inextricable from their daily life—and one which therefore helps shape their identity—can be harmful and potentially insinuates that their condition is something to be ashamed of. It is always important to respect and work to understand an individual’s own preferences in the pursuit of creating a more inclusive, equitable world.

Strategies to Help Destigmatize SUDs in Everyday Life

Whether you or a loved one has lived experience with an SUD, you work in a field that interfaces with individuals with SUDs, or you simply find yourself discussing the topic with a friend, family member, or co-worker, having the right tools to communicate with can help foster empathy, compassion, and equity.

Here are a few alternative words and phrases that can help destigmatize SUDs:

Using the alternative, person-first styled words and phrases listed above can help us navigate conversations with loved ones in ways that respect and advocate for individuals with lived experiences with SUDs. When we encounter others who use stigmatizing language, it’s important to bring attention to the potential harms this can cause and offer helpful alternatives with an explanation of our understanding of SUD as a chronic, yet treatable medical condition.

Find more resources, information, and helpful language to help end stigma here.

Evidence-Based, Person-Centered Care at Gaudenzia

As a leading provider of evidence-based, person-centered treatment for substance use and co-occurring disorders, Gaudenzia is committed to advocating for compassionate and equitable policies, attitudes, and access to services and care for individuals with an SUD, as well as their families.

Our trauma-informed, gender-responsive, and culturally responsive treatment model utilizes evidence-based techniques that include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing (MI), and medication-assisted treatment (MAT).

If you or a loved one needs help with substance use and co-occurring disorders, please call Gaudenzia’s 24-hour Treatment and Referral HelpLine at 833.976.HELP (4357) or email [email protected] today.

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*Visitors to Gaudenzia’s website may notice that we use language that is sometimes considered stigmatizing on certain pages. Learn why we do this here. 

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