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Words that Pack a Punch: Eliminating the Stigma Around Mental Health and Addiction

Whether or not we want to admit it, we can’t deny that stigma and discrimination are still alive and widespread in society today. Stigma affects not only how we view others in society but also how people view themselves. Our words directly impact the opinions we form about others, and when our words are negative and discriminatory, our thoughts tend to follow suit.

Understanding Stigma

Stigma is a negative connotation that is associated with a particular person or attribute. The words we use and how we describe certain people and characteristics go a long way in perpetuating stigma.

Unfortunately, a lot of stigma is associated with addiction and mental illness, especially substance use disorders or SUD. Much of this stigma comes from misunderstanding SUD and spreading false information. Many people believe that addiction is a “moral failing” when we, in fact, know that addiction is a chronic, treatable disease that people can recover from, and continue to lead normal lives.

This stigma affects how people with SUD view themselves, making them less willing to seek treatment. They may feel ashamed of their disorder, and don’t want to be judged or viewed differently than others. Stigma also makes other people less willing to associate themselves with someone with SUD, which may cause fear, anger, and discrimination toward them. Sadly, stigma also can affect the care that people with SUD receive from healthcare providers, negatively skewing how the provider perceives them.

People with mental health conditions also struggle with negative stigma. A lot of talk about mental illness and suicide makes it seem like the individual’s fault, making the person feel shame and less likely to seek treatment.

Let’s take a look at some examples. Imagine you are sitting down with your morning coffee, and you open up your email. You see a news alert for an article titled, “Connecticut Junkies are at it again.” What is the first thing that comes to mind when you read this? Does it give off the vibe that the “junkies’ are dangerous, responsible for their condition, and should be avoided? If yes, you’re not alone. Studies show that when accusatory words such as “addicts,” “substance abuser,” “junkie,” and “druggie,” are used to describe people with SUD, people view them as more dangerous, a threat to society, and more deserving of punishment over treatment as compared to when more personalizing terms are used to describe them.

Facing the Facts

Many studies have been conducted to look at how the stigma surrounding SUD affects our views. One study looked at Connecticut adults in particular, asking them how likely they would be to associate with someone with an opioid use disorder, or OUD. Only 15% of people said they would likely let a person with OUD marry into their family, 33% said they would have someone with OUD as a personal friend, and only 37% would be comfortable socializing with a person with OUD. This data shows clear discrimination and the desire to avoid someone with OUD, leaving the individual isolated.

On the flip side, the same survey showed that 88% of people think people with OUD should be treated equally and given the same opportunities as others. 95% believed that healthcare providers should treat people with OUD the same as any mental illness, and over 94% of people believed that people with OUD should be offered treatment, not punishment.

Comparing these two portions of the data paints a clear picture of the amount of stigma still lingering when it comes to substance use disorders. The majority of people don’t want to associate with people with SUD but think they should be treated equally. How can both of these statements be true?

Eliminating the Stigma

In order for us to change the stigma surrounding SUD, we must change the way we communicate. Instead of using negative, shameful, and judgmental language, we must choose words that show compassion, support, and respect. This is referred to as person-first language. SUD and mental health conditions can be treated. They are not character flaws; we must not treat them that way.

The first step to eliminating the stigma is changing the words used when talking about it. Words like addict, user, alcoholic, and drunk should be avoided. These terms elicit negative feelings and make it seem like the person is to blame. Instead, replace these words with phrases such as “person with substance use disorder,” or “person in recovery.” These phrases are person-first and describe the individual as a person with a problem, not insinuating that the person is the problem.

Another stigmatizing term often used when talking about SUD is “habit.” This implies that a person is choosing to use substances, and is able to stop. Instead, words like “drug addiction” or “substance use disorder,” more accurately reflect the nature of an SUD and do not place blame on the individual.

“Abuse” is another term highly associated with negative judgments and punishment. Instead of referring to someone as a “drug abuser” or “substance abuse,” instead say “person who uses drugs” or “substance misuse.”

When discussing other mental health conditions, it's important to remember to use words that promote understanding and feel relatable, are person-first, and are neutral. For example, instead of saying, “my sister is schizophrenic,” say, “my sister has schizophrenia.” Similar to above, this promotes the idea that the disease does not define the person.

For a full list of terms and language, visit here.

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