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VIEWPOINT: By changing attitude & language, we can break stigma

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Addiction treatment (substance abuse disorder) and overdose prevention care requires the commitment of the patient, the talents and dedication of counselors and medical professionals and, the support from a patient’s larger circle outside the treatment environment.

Many of those we help are burdened by their addictions and the stigmas placed on them by friends, family, coworkers and society at-large. One of the most damaging of these stigmas is the perception of addiction as a “weakness,” or a “character flaw.”


According to Johns Hopkins University, there’s a body of research suggesting that a significant number of people believe that addiction results from a personal choice and reflects a lack of willpower and also a moral failure. Research shows these preconceptions can damage the health and hope of people with substance abuse disorder and interfere with their quality of care.

Whether we perpetuate or break down these stigmas rests very much in our approach and language we use when referencing or working with those suffering with addiction. We can all truly make a difference in their lives and improve their treatment outcomes if family, friends and other health care and social services workers align in attitude and language.


For instance, instead of calling someone as a “drug abuser,” we instead use “person with a substance use disorder.” The term “clean” to denote someone who is not currently using drugs or alcohol suggests that someone who is still using is “dirty.” Instead, we say this person is “in recovery.” Focusing on the person first instead of their condition reminds us that they’re human and emphasizes that they’re not defined by their addictions.

In this way, we also show that addiction is a medical condition and not a failure of morals, values or faith, which frees the patient to recognize this about themselves. As we work to break down stereotypes and stigmas that still remain in society, we will provide paths to reconciliation, employment and better overall health and wellbeing for those who have struggled with substance abuse disorder.

Dionne Cornish is the director of prevention and early intervention services at Brandywine Counseling and Community Services. Lynn Morrison is CEO of BCCS.

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