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Looking beyond the label: How to handle the stigma associated with rehab

Looking beyond the label How to handle the stigma associated with rehab Image

The United States National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 21.5 million Americans age 12 and older have a substance use disorder. However, sadly only 2.5 million receive the specialized treatment they need.

There’s a clear disparity that exists between those suffering from a substance use disorder and those who receive help. In part, this is due to the stigma associated with attending a rehab facility. For many, the label of ‘rehab’ is too much to carry – there’s a feeling of shame associated with admitting a problem and asking for help.

In this blog, we’re here to tell you that rehabilitation doesn’t carry the same stigma today as it once did, and that speaking up and accepting help is braver than you might think.

The negative effects of stigma

Stigma is one of the most prevalent barriers faced in substance use disorders and mental health recovery. For example, a study conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that 37 percent of college students avoided seeking help for addiction because they feared social stigma.

Unfortunately, because stigma creates such a high barrier to receiving help, it often makes a substance use disorder worse. Not only does it stop a person from getting the help they need, but it also encourages greater feelings of depression and anxiety and when a person does eventually attend a rehab facility and, when a person finally jumps over the stigma barrier, they are often diagnosed with a co-occurring disorder.

In short, ignoring a substance use disorder because of the fear of admitting a perceived ‘weakness’ is a dangerous thing to do. It can result in:

  • A greater resistance to receiving treatment and access to healthcare.
  • Greater harm to a person.
  • Lower self-esteem and mental health.


The negative effects associated with the stigma of rehab, then, are often greater than the negative effects of a substance use disorder itself.

Fighting back against stigma

No matter what situation a person is in, nobody likes to feel judged or devalued for who they are. Even when strolling down the street, it can be hard not to feel judged for small things like the way we dress or how we walk.

In today’s world, judgement is rife. Our ‘Instagram-friendly’ lives must showcase to the world that we are living the best life possible, and all of the time. Anything less than that can be judged upon by others.

When it comes to substance use disorders, however, this stigma is exponentially larger. There are, however, a few things we can all do to help reduce stigma, including:

  • Offering compassionate support.
  • Displaying kindness to people in vulnerable situations.
  • Listening while withholding judgment.
  • Seeing a person for who they are, not what drugs they use.
  • Doing your research; learning about drug dependency and how it works.
  • Treating people with drug dependency with dignity and respect.
  • Avoiding hurtful labels.
  • Replacing negative attitudes with evidence-based facts.
  • Speaking up when you see someone mistreated because of their drug use.
  • Sharing your own stories with stigma.


For those that surround an addict, trying to minimise the judgement associated with a substance use disorder and rehab is critical to help someone overcome the primary barrier to treatment. By displaying kindness, empathy and compassion to those experiencing a substance use disorder, we can all begin to help others in need.

Language and stigma

There are many words associated with addiction that can result in greater stigma. Even the word ‘addiction’ can create a stigma associated with drug abuse. After all, not all drug users are ‘addicted’. By using stigmatizing language, you are, in one way or another, preventing people who need treatment from seeking help.

Below is a list of stigmatized language and the preferred word choice that can help reduce stigma. This was outlined by in The Office of National Drug Control Policy, which was released in 2015:

Stigmatizing languagePreferred language
AddictPerson with a substance use disorder 
Addicted to XHas a X use disorder
AddictionSubstance use disorder
AlcoholicPerson suffering from alcohol addiction
CleanAbstinent
Clean screenSubstance-free
DirtyActively using
Drug habitRegular substance use
Drug abuserPerson who uses drugs
Reformed addict or alcoholicPerson in recovery
Opioid replacementMedication-assisted treatment
Recreational or casual userPerson who uses drugs for nonmedical reasons
Experimental userPerson who is new to drug use

These guidelines use people-first language, which is characterized by acknowledging the person before the condition, and acknowledging the person is a major step toward reducing stigma.

Reducing stigma

It isn’t easy to reduce stigma associated with a substance use disorder because authoritative sources have endorsed misconceptions and prejudice for generations. As a society, however, we must adapt and become more socially inclusive if people with all types of health conditions are to get the help they need.

To find out more about how you can help a person suffering from a substance use disorder and about how you can begin to reduce the stigma associated with seeking professional treatment, speak with one of our experts today for more advice.

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Adam Nesenhoff

Adam Nesenhoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

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