Sticks and Stones… A Look at How Language Can Change Stigma

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

Written by Francis Quesea, Recovery Resources Project Associate

Photo of the Northwest CARA team, courtesy of Kenneth Young Center. Left to right: Chelsea Laliberte (Co-Founder and Advocacy Strategist, Live4Lali), Lucas Alex (Chelsea's baby), Grace Hong Duffin (Chief Executive Officer, Kenneth Young Center), Sherrine Peyton (Director of Community Collaboration and Public Resource Development, Kenneth Young Center), Craig B. Johnson (Mayor, Elk Grove Village), Des Raftery (Social Worker, Elk Grove Village Police Department), and Mike Gaspari (Deputy Chief, Elk Grove Village Police Department).

The month of September means National Recovery Month.

On Wednesday September 2nd, the Northwest CARA team, consisting of Elk Grove Village Cares, Kenneth Young Center, and Live4Lali, kicked off the first day of its Recovery Webinar Wednesday series.

Webinar Wednesdays is a weekly virtual event in September where experts and people with lived experiences in the recovery community provide resources, share personal stories, and talk about important topics such as harm reduction and overdose prevention.

The first webinar was on the topic of Stigma Reduction and Language, facilitated by Live4Lali’s Executive Director, Laura Fry. Laura talked about stigma’s harmful effects on people as well as action steps we can use to check ourselves in making sure we don’t perpetuate stigma.

People experiencing both substance use and mental health disorders face stigma at alarming levels which can discourage people from seeking help or finding support. This is because stigma often induces shame and guilt instead of acceptance and empowerment. Stigma perpetuates negative feelings about self and others, leading to increased social isolation, depression, hopelessness, and suicide ideation. Stigma can occur as discrimination or bias in medical care, housing, employment, classrooms, and more. Stigma is common but doesn’t have to be.

Language is so powerful in that the words we choose to use in our everyday vocabulary can help break the cycle of stigma. When talking about substance use, some ways we can be more humanizing include:

  • Stop using labels. Use “person first” language. Labels put blame on a person. Instead of saying “Neil is an addict,” try using “Neil is a person who uses substances.” In some cases, a person may self-identify as an addict and find the term empowering. It is important to respect how a person self-identifies.

  • Cultivate curiosity. Sometimes the best way to understand people is by listening to their experiences and having a conversation. Be aware if you notice yourself starting to place judgements on others, and learn to let them go.

  • Develop connection. Trust is the foundation of any healthy relationship. If you have experiences of substance use recovery, sharing your own story can help build acceptance of your experiences. Not everyone can be a safe person to share your story with. Choose people who you know are empathetic or open-minded.

  • Show compassion. Showing care, affection, and respect can be a powerful affirmation to others of the humanity of those who are experiencing substance use issues.

  • Pass it on and pay it forward. Continue this conversation by educating others on how the language of stigma can be harmful. Let people know that using “addict” to label someone doesn’t work.

One resource to check out concerning stigma and the way substance use and addiction is portrayed in our culture is Changing the Narrative.

Our Webinar Wednesdays series continues throughout September! Join us to build community and learn more about key topics in substance use recovery. View upcoming webinars and register here.

Additionally, our Recovery Art Festival is looking for looking for artwork created by those impacted by addictive behaviors such as substance use, self-harm, gambling and more. View criteria and more here.

Looking for recovery resources? Visit the CPYD Recovery Resource Guide to get connected with a therapist, Naloxone, peer groups and other tools to support recovery.

Read more from our staff:

- International Overdose Awareness Day: Past and Present

- Faces of Recovery: African Americans & Substance Use

- The Importance of Stopping Mental Health Stigma

- Say This Not That: The Language of Recovery

650 E. Algonquin Rd., Ste. 104
Schaumburg, IL 60173
(847) 496-5939
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Funding provided to the Kenneth Young Center by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS), the Illinois Public Health Association, the Public Health Institute of Metropolitan Chicago, the Alliance to End Homelessness in Suburban Cook County, and Schaumburg Township.