Content reviewed by Christian Losch, LCSW, LCADC, CEO of Pinelands

Having a friend, family member, spouse or other loved one struggling with addiction can be a challenging situation to navigate. Even more difficult is knowing how to be supportive when you have not experienced a mental health or substance use disorder (SUD) personally. Nonetheless, your support can do wonders for the recovery of the person who is struggling.

Still, it can be difficult to know the right thing to say or do for your loved one as you try to support their recovery. Becoming educated on what SUD is and how it affects a given individual can be a great place to start. Once you better understand how addiction functions, you may feel less intimidated. Similarly, you will know what phrases and words to avoid when talking with your loved one.

Stigma perpetuates substance use.

Unfortunately, substance use and mental health disorders have been stigmatized throughout history well into today. Most people do not understand that stigmas develop from a lack of education, misunderstandings and inaccurate beliefs.

Common stigmas about individuals with SUD say that they are:

  • Dangerous
  • Incapable of successfully managing treatment
  • At fault for their condition

Stigma is a large factor that keeps people from seeking and receiving treatment. Further, stigmatizing language can cause individuals to unfairly fear and pity individuals who struggle with SUD. Additionally, these words can negatively influence community perceptions about substance use and mental health disorders overall.

Language matters.

Language can make all the difference in how your loved one perceives your concerns. It is vital to use non-stigmatizing language when talking to your loved one about their substance use. Instead, use fact-based language that reflects an accurate and well-researched understanding of their condition. Again, it may help to do some research about substance use and addiction.

Here are several examples that may help you understand how language matters:

  • Rather than using the term “addict,” use the phrase “a person with substance use disorder”
  • Instead of the term “alcoholic,” say “a person struggling with alcohol use”
  • Rather than referring to “drug abuse,” use the phrase “drug use”

The first two examples use first-person language. Additionally, the change shows that the person is struggling with a problem rather than being labeled as the problem. The change in the last example highlights that the term “abuse” has negative connotations associated with judgment.

What these examples have in common is that they work to reduce stigma and negative bias when discussing substance use and addiction. This is the first step to a healthier conversation around these topics.

Avoid certain language when talking to a loved one about addiction.

Beyond certain terms like those in the previous section, there is a variety of language you should avoid when talking with your loved one about their substance use. Here are a few general tips:

Avoid blaming and shaming.

If you have studied the effects of SUD, you know that the condition is not a result of moral weakness or a lack of willpower. Rather, addiction is a chronic and complex disease of the brain. It takes a lifetime to reverse the effects of substance use. With that said, you should never use language that blames or shames your loved one. For example, avoid derogatory terms, as mentioned above, as well as phrases like “You’re better than this” or “You must not care about me.”

Avoid enabling or encouraging substance use.

Another situation to avoid is enabling your loved one’s substance use. Recovery is incredibly difficult, but even more so when family members and friends are trying to encourage drug use. In addition to avoiding enabling behaviors, avoid phrases like “Just have one” or “It’s all about balance.”

Do not make it seem like recovery is an easy road.

Another thing you should avoid is making it seem like recovery is the easy option. Even if you are in recovery yourself, remember that recovery impacts everyone differently. Even if it was easy for you, that doesn’t mean it will be easy for your loved one. Additionally, remember to have patience. Since recovery is lifelong, there will inevitably be bumps in the road. Allow your loved one time to navigate their own recovery.

Language Worth Using

Now that you understand what terms and phrases to avoid, you may want to know what language is valuable for your loved one’s recovery. In general, conversations with your loved one should be compassionate, supportive and honest. Additionally, be as intentional as possible with the language you are using.

Here are some helpful phrases to use when talking with your loved one:

  • “I am here for you.”
  • “How can I support you?”
  • “I believe in your ability to recover.”
  • “You are not alone.”
  • “Things will get better.”
  • “This is not your fault.”
  • “There is nothing shameful about what you are going through.”

Pinelands Recovery Center of Medford is a premier drug and alcohol treatment center that knows how large a role language can play when motivating individuals to receive the treatment they deserve. After decades of stigmatizing language being normalized when discussing mental health and substance use disorders, language matters now more than ever. Call Pinelands to learn more at (877) 557-5372.