The Stigma of Substance Use Disorders

The manager of Substance Use Prevention and Treatment Services at Oakland Community Health Network discusses ways for families to stop the stigma cycle.

“What will my family say?”

“Who will find out?”

This could be the internal dialogue a person with a substance use disorder has prior to seeking treatment, says Crystal Mosby, manager of Substance Use Prevention and Treatment Services at Oakland Community Health Network – and it’s because of the stigma attached to substance use disorders.

“I think sometimes we penalize people for going to ask for help,” Mosby says. “You wouldn’t penalize a diabetic for going to the doctor to receive treatment for their disease, so why penalize someone who finally took the first step?”

Taking that first step toward recovery is key. So, how can families help their loved ones open up and seek treatment? Here, Mosby offers advice.

Advice for families

While tough, conversations should happen, they must be direct, honest – and approached with love, Mosby says.

“If you see something, say something. If you have concerns, address it,” she says.

Even if the situation doesn’t change right away, a person with a substance use disorder needs to know you care and he or she can come to you to have a real conversation down the road – without that bias.

“That young person needs to know that you are there to be a support and listen,” Mosby adds.

Don’t be afraid to start the conversations early, she says.

“One of the most important things to note is for parents not to be afraid because of their child’s age,” Mosby says – as children are starting to use substances younger and younger. “Be aware that it’s OK to have conversations with your kids early on.” Ask your child if anyone in school is using drugs. Young people will tell you if you listen, Mosby says.

When a loved one does finally want to have that conversation, address them with respect.

“Don’t blame the person. That’s probably the biggest thing, because we get into the blame game,” she says.

By doing so, you’ve made that person defensive, and they won’t hear anything you say afterwards. Whether you want to blame the person, the people they associate with or another factor, Mosby suggests avoiding that narrative.

“You really want to deal with them and try to help,” she says. “You wouldn’t ask someone who just got hit in a car accident who is hurt, ‘Did you cause that accident?'” she says.

If you don’t know how to provide a person with help, Mosby suggests reaching out for assistance. And for those struggling with a loved one’s substance use disorder, talk to a counselor.

Changing the conversation

In an effort to end the stigma associated with substance use disorders and seeking treatment, the state of Michigan recently kicked off its End the Stigma campaign.

“Opioid use disorder is one of the biggest public health crises we are facing. It impacts every state and doesn’t discriminate across gender, race, culture or geography,” says Lynn Sutfin, Public Information Officer at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. “It affects entire families and has resulted in the deaths of more than 8,000 Michiganders in the last five years.

“The campaign focuses on changing the conversation about opioid use disorder treatment and encourages Michiganders to seek treatment to help improve their lives and ultimately prevent overdoses,” Sutfin continues. “The development of the campaign was the result of extensive research and focus groups, learning from those affected by opioid use disorders, as well as from their friends and family members.”

Significantly, she adds, “Only one-third of those with opioid use disorder are comfortable talking to loved ones about their medical condition.”

Part of the campaign includes a focus on using the “right” words when addressing people with substance use disorders. Examples include using “person who uses drugs” instead of “drug abuser” or “substance use disorder” instead of “addict.”

Brought to you by the Oakland Community Health Network. For more information, visit


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