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Sticks, Stones, & Substances: Language Matters

Written by: Ahrein Bennett, MPH, CPH, CHES



Substance use is a health condition, similar to mental health and infectious disease, that is often hounded with unfair judgement, discrimination, and stigma. The media and society have created a deceptive depiction of how and who individuals with substance use disorder should look like or act. However, the reality is that substance use disorder, affects people of all ages, genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds. In 2021, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that 46.3 million people in the US aged 12 or older had a substance use disorder.


As common and wide-reaching substance use is, we are still using stigmatizing language that causes more harm than good. Research has shown that stigmatizing words have a negative impact on health outcomes and can effect an individual’s decision to seek and adhere to treatment through medications, treatment centers, harm reduction methods, and/or support groups (Volkow, Gordon, & Koob, 2021).


This month we will take a look at some common, yet stigmatizing, language and replace them with person-first language to destigmatize substance use.

Being mindful of these small changes can reduce stigma and subsequently allow someone to start and finish their recovery journey.


Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or TTY: 1-800-487-4889 or text your zip code to 435748 (HELP4U) for free and confidential information about prevention and treatment for substance use.



Sources (ordered by appearance)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023, June 26). Substance use - health, United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/hus/sources-definitions/substanceuse.htm#:~:text=Refers%20to%20the%20use%20of,dependence%20and%20other%20detrimental%20effects.


John Hopkins Medicine. (2023, January 31). Substance use disorder. JHM. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/substance-abuse-chemical-dependency


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2022). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. PEP22-07-01-005, NSDUH Series H-57). Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/report/2021-nsduh-annual-national-report


Volkow, N.D., Gordon, J.A. & Koob, G.F. Choosing appropriate language to reduce the stigma around mental illness and substance use disorders. Neuropsychopharmacol. 46, 2230–2232 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41386-021-01069-4


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2023, September 1). Find substance use disorder treatment. SAMHSA. https://www.samhsa.gov/medications-substance-use-disorders/find-substance-use-disorder-treatment


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About Author:

Arhein Bennett, MPH, CPH, CHES

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