Stigma Busting! Education is Key in Family Recovery

team approach people together on beach

Joining together to reduce the stigma associated with addiction and mental health disorders!


In December of 2021, Sanford Founder, Rae Green and I delivered a presentation to Washtenaw Families Against Narcotics (WFAN). One element of that presentation was a discussion related to relapse. We introduced the concept of calling it a recurrence instead of relapse as part of our section on stigma busting addiction and co-occurring disorders with language. In fact, words have the power to promote stigma or reduce its sting.


What is Stigma?

Stigma is an attachment of negativity and undesirability to a human condition: a label of social disgrace or disapproval. Stigma has to do with our perceptions of people experiencing that condition. When we apply stigma, we view people with a condition, to be that condition only. In other words, not a human being with strengths, interests, talents, and individual differences from us. Applying stigma is an unfair and inaccurate method of describing people with conditions like addiction or a mental health diagnosis.


One of the difficult aspects surrounding stigma is that many of us use language daily that stigmatizes people with physical and mental conditions. Often this happens unintentionally, as we are unaware of our stigmatizing language or our acceptance of beliefs that arise from generations that came before us.


Stigmatizing Language

As most of us know at least one individual with a substance use disorder (SUD), it is necessary to pay close attention to your thoughts, beliefs, and language. As an exercise to become more aware of your perceptions, try asking yourself the questions below:

1. What are the nicknames, titles or terms you have heard to describe people with a substance use disorder or mental health condition?

2. Think back to how your family of origin described people with mental health disorders. What sort of words did they use?

3. Is there anyone in your family or close to you experiencing life with an SUD or mental health condition?

Answering the above questions will give you a clue about factors that may have formed or shaped your feelings about people with addictive disease.


Families can be great allies in recovery.

We Learn to Stigmatize!

The unpleasant truth is that we learn to stigmatize people with mental health conditions, and that includes your very own loved ones! We even learn to stigmatize ourselves for having close connections to someone with an SUD.


As an “experiment” to use in this article, I asked members of one of Sanford’s family support groups, if they believed stigma had any impact on their efforts to seek treatment. (I obtained their consent to use their information.) This is what they said:

  • 90% of the group members said YES.
  • They believed stigma interfered with their openness in talking about their thoughts and feelings with others.
  • Stigma also interfered with sharing concerns that their loved one might have an SUD.
  • It was easier to keep their secret because of fear of negative reactions from others.
  • They also reported they do not share addiction in the family with certain people, because of the expected negative reactions.
  • They were sad and discouraged that people in recovery reported feeling badly about themselves.
  • There was a common belief that most people don’t know the facts about addictive disease, leading to negative reactions.
  • Also, they did not want to be looked at negatively because they had someone close to them with a SUD.

What these family members reported, is fear of being stigmatized. Education is the key. The general public, even some providers of medical and mental health care, would better serve the needs of people in recovery or those seeking treatment by becoming more educated on the facts surrounding stigma and addictive disease.


Stigma Busting and Preserving Dignity

Going back to what we shared in our WFAN presentation, changing the word relapse to recurrence shows more respect and preserves the dignity of people struggling with recovery from an SUD. There appears to be scientific evidence present for this change in language.


Dr Nora Volkow and the NIDA refer to addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disorder. The medical community acknowledges that all chronic diseases have a return of symptoms. They also require ongoing monitoring and adjustments in treatment plans. Addiction is progressive, meaning the disorder continues to move forward in the brain, even without the presence of substances. This progressive nature is similar to other chronic diseases as well.


I’m Still a Person, The Stigma of Substance Use & The Power of Respect

Because addiction is progressive in nature, continued disease management is critical to lasting recovery. As family members and friends, be vigilant with your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors towards your recovering loved one. It is so important. It is possible that you may even be unintentionally stigmatizing your loved ones in recovery.


To continue the journey, beyond the 3 questions asked earlier, to reduce the possible expression of stigma towards loved ones in your life, there is a free workbook to order/download, published with the support of WFAN.

I’m Still a Person, The Stigma of Substance Use & The Power of Respect*

This workbook gives you clear direction on identifying stigmatizing use of words and phrases and will offer instruction in person centered language. Take a step towards reducing the stigma associated with addictive disease. Do it for yourself and those people in recovery that you love!


*I want to thank WFAN for partnering with Dr Audrey Begun, MSW, Ph.D.., for bringing this excellent and accurate “stigma buster” to us. I also want to thank, SRJ, for bringing this amazing publication to my attention. Carli Noffsinger



Caroline (Carli) Parmelee-Noffsinger has 20 years clinical experience including: primary therapist and case manager for residential, IOP and outpatient therapy. Carli’s primary role at Sanford House is facilitating the Family Program. She is currently updating and revising the program design and content and hopes to improve upon an already successful approach to family intervention. In her free time, Carli spends time with her horse. She has been a horse lover and owner for most of her life and has facilitated equine therapy sessions. She says, “The back of a horse is good for the inside of a person.” You can reach Carli with questions about The Sanford House Family Program at