Shaming our sick

The addiction stigma hurts! It can prevent our brothers and sisters from getting the help that they desperately need. It’s so detrimental that many forego treatment or even access healthcare because of the perception.

Fight back the stigma

Regardless of the person’s struggle, we should not make someone feel judged or devalued. Everyone needs kindness and a little help sometimes. If you know someone struggling with addiction or anything else in their lives, do not ostracize them. Instead encourage them and give empathy.

Stigma reducing language

Change the way you talk about addiction by using the table from the National Institute on Drug Abuse below:

Instead of…





Substance or drug abuser


Former addict

Reformed addict

Person with substance use disorder

Person with opioid use disorder (OUD) or person with opioid addiction [when substance in use is opioids]


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 change shows that a person “has” a problem, rather than “is” the problem.

The terms avoid elicit negative associations, punitive attitudes, and individual blame.


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 disease.


For illicit drugs:


For prescription medications:

Misuse, used other than prescribed

The term “abuse” was found to have a high association with negative judgments and punishment.

Legitimate use of prescription medications is limited to their use as prescribed by the person to whom they are prescribed.  Consumption outside these parameters is misuse.

Opioid substitution Replacement therapy

Opioid agonist therapy

Medication treatment for OUD


It is a misconception that medications merely “substitute” one drug or “one addiction” for another.


For toxicology screen results:

Testing negative

For non-toxicology purposes:

Being in remission or recovery

Abstinent from drugs

Not drinking or taking drugs

Not currently or actively using drugs

Use clinically accurate, non-stigmatizing terminology the same way it would be used for other medical conditions.

Set an example with your own language when treating patients who might use stigmatizing slang.

Use of such terms may evoke negative and punitive implicit cognitions.


For toxicology screen results:

Testing positive

For non-toxicology purposes:

Person who uses drugs

Use clinically accurate, non-stigmatizing terminology the same way it would be used for other medical conditions.

May decrease patients’ sense of hope and self-efficacy for change.

Addicted baby

Baby born to mother who used drugs while pregnant

Baby with signs of withdrawal from prenatal drug exposure

Baby with neonatal opioid withdrawal/neonatal abstinence syndrome

Newborn exposed to substances

Babies cannot be born with addiction because addiction is a behavioral disorder—they are simply born manifesting a withdrawal syndrome.

Use clinically accurate, non-stigmatizing terminology the same way it would be used for other medical conditions.

Using person-first language can reduce stigma.


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