Stigma Hurts, Treatment Heals


Stigma Hurts, Treatment Heals  

Addictions, and their treatment, are highly stigmatized. This stigma often stems from the belief that an addiction is somehow a moral failing. Sadly, substance use disorders are treatable, chronic diseases – but societal misconceptions and biases can be barriers to successful treatment.

Providers and other clinical team members are not immune to this bias – even at a subconscious level. Studies have shown that stigma can unknowingly influence providers’ perceptions of people with substance use disorder.

Whether or not we’re aware of these biases, using stigmatized language or practices can negatively impact patients and greatly diminish their willingness to seek treatment. In fact, it is estimated that for every one overdose, there were at least seven opportunities for healthcare to intervene.

Patients deserve to be treated with dignity and respect so they feel supported by the very professionals they turn to for help. Awareness and education of stigmatizing language and practices can help ensure this goal is achieved. Every clinic team member can be a part of the solution.

Stigmatizing Language

The language we use heavily impacts the way care is received, so using words that de-stigmatize substance use disorder must be intentional. Using clinically appropriate and medically accurate language that recognizes substance use disorder as a disease rather than a moral failing will help to create a stigma-free environment that prioritizes treatment and recovery. Learn more:

How to Talk About Addiction

Words Matter - People First Language and Other Strategies

People-first language prioritizes the individual or “personhood” of every patient over descriptive social identities and stigmatizing language. It also reinforces that a person is NOT his/her disease. Consider for a moment how we apply this best practice to other patients. Examples include:

  • Person with Diabetes
  • Patient with Alzheimer’s Disease

Similarly, labels such as user, alcoholic, drunk, or junkie are also not appropriate. For a complete list of examples and recommended language, review the table below:

Instead of:Use...Because...
  • Addict
  • User
  • Substance or drug abuser
  • Junkie


  • Alcoholic
  • Drunk


  • Former addict
  • Reformed Addict
  • Person with substance use disorder
  • Person with opioid user disorder (OUD) or person with opioid addiction [when substance in use is opioids]
  • Patient


  • Person with alcohol use disorder
  • Person who misuses alcohol/engages in unhealthy/hazardous alcohol use


  • Person in recovery or long-term recovery
  • Person who previously used drugs
  • Person-first language.
  • The changes shows the person "has" a problem, rather than "is" the problem.
  • The terms avoid eliciting negative associations, punitive attitudes, and individual blame.
  • Habit
  • Substance use disorder
  • Drug addiction
  • Inaccurately implies that a person is choosing to use substances or can choose to stop.
  • "Habit" may undermine the seriousness of the addiction.

More Resources

Stories Close to Home

We all know someone who is impacted by substance use disorder. But as a society, we’re uncomfortable discussing what is oftentimes still seen as taboo. It’s this very silence that can leave loved ones who struggle with substance use disorder feeling alone, helpless – and above all – ashamed of their addiction.

Hearing their experiences not only provides a safe, cathartic space for those seeking recovery, but helps shed light for those of us who don’t fully understand the nature of substance use disorder. The following are two such stories, shared by employees right here at Munson Healthcare.