Language Matters: 4 Tips to Reduce Stigma Surrounding Mental Health & Substance Use


Mental health and substance use disorders are among the most stigmatized conditions, and words can hurt, especially when they reinforce stigma and outdated misconceptions about mental health and substance use.

Here are four ways to reduce stigma related to substance use disorders and mental health, simply by adjusting your language.

Talk openly about substance use, mental health, and stigma.

Mental health and substance use disorders are chronic and treatable complex medical conditions. Considering mental health and substance use disorders as moral failings or the result of poor choices or self-control is incorrect and reinforces stigma.

Talking openly about mental health and substance use and using appropriate and respectful language helps to decrease stigma. Speak up if you hear others talking about mental health and substance use disorders as anything other than a complex medical condition.

number two

Use person-first language.

Person-first language is a simple approach to using words that are appropriate and respectful, putting the person before the diagnosis to help to eliminate prejudice, value judgments, and stigma.

For example, rather than saying “addict” or “junkie” say “person with a substance use disorder.”

number three

Consider identify-first language.

An important exception to person-first language involves allowing the individual with substance use or mental health disorder to choose how they want to be described or identified.

For example, while person-first language suggests saying “person with an alcohol use disorder” or “harmful alcohol use” someone in recovery may identify with the term alcoholic or alcohol abuse and prefer to use these terms when describing themselves or their experiences.

Remember, asking about someone’s preferences shows an investment in their journey and respect for their experiences. If you have doubts about what words to use, ASK!

number four

Educate yourself and others.

Ultimately, it’s up to us to stay informed and up-to-date with how language and word choices can impact others and reinforce stigma around mental health and substance use disorders.

Here is a short list of alternative word choices to get you started:

Instead of “addict,” “abuser,” or “junkie,” use “person with a substance use disorder”
Instead of saying someone is “clean” say “in recovery” or if describing the results of a urine toxicology test, say “positive” or “negative”
Instead of saying “committed suicide” say “died by suicide”
Avoid words like “crazy”, “schizo”, or “nuts” when describing people with mental health disorders or peoples’ behaviors.

For more information, below is a link to a great resource that provides definitions, stigma alerts, and alternative word choices for common language related to substance use and mental health:

Get Help or Make a Referral

Let’s all work together to stop the stigma and talk openly about mental health and substance use. Many of those we serve face the highest barriers to wellness, including untreated mental illness, chemical dependency, and history of incarceration, cognitive and physical disabilities, trauma, and chronic illness. At SouthLight, we believe in treating the whole individual, not just the illness. If you or someone you know needs help, tell them about SouthLight.