A group of people putting their arms around each other in support.

From Stigma to Support: Creating Supportive Environments for People Experiencing Substance Use Disorder

Christy Johnson
November 16, 2023
September 25, 2023

Substance use disorder (SUD) is a complex and challenging condition affecting millions worldwide. It is often misunderstood and stigmatized, which can make it harder for those who struggle with it to seek help and recover. This blog post will explore ways to destigmatize substance use disorder and create healthy environments for open and helpful conversations to encourage treatment, support, and healing. 

What Is Substance Use Disorder? 

Substance use disorder is a term that describes a pattern of using substances, such as alcohol and drugs, in a way that causes significant problems or distress in one’s life. Some of the common signs of substance use disorder are: 

  • Using substances as a way to cope with or “numb” oneself from stress, pain, or negative emotions
  • Having difficulty controlling the amount or frequency of use
  • Experiencing cravings or withdrawal symptoms when not using substances
  • Reduced performance or engagement in responsibilities, relationships, or hobbies due to substance use
  • Continuing to use substances despite negative consequences, such as health problems, legal issues, or financial troubles
  • Having a hard time quitting or reducing substance use

Looking at substance use disorder from a mental health perspective, it is important to understand that having substance use disorder is not a moral failing or character flaw. It is a complex issue, influenced by a complex set of factors that encompasses genetics, the environment, individual trauma, family or generational trauma, and overall mental health. Substance use disorder can affect anyone at any time of life, regardless of age, gender, race, or socioeconomic status.

The Importance Of Destigmatizing Substance Use Disorder

Stigma is a negative attitude or judgment based on stereotypes and misconceptions. Stigma can lead to discrimination, isolation, and shame for people who have substance use disorder, and the resulting fear or internalized shame can prevent them from seeking help or accessing the treatment they need. 

Some of the common sources of stigma are: 

  • Media portrayals that depict people with substance use disorders as criminals, violent, or irresponsible
  • Critical or judgemental language that labels people as “addicts,” “junkies,” or “drunks”
  • Blaming people for their condition or assuming they lack willpower or motivation
  • Ignoring the underlying causes or co-occurring disorders that contribute to substance use disorder
  • Treating substance use disorder as a personal choice rather than a medical and mental health issue

Destigmatizing substance use disorder is crucial for creating a safe and supportive environment for people who experience it. It can help them to heal and recover from the shame and self-criticism that often accompanies the disorder. It can also encourage them to seek help and access treatment without fear of judgment or rejection. 

How Can We Destigmatize Substance Use Disorder And Create A Safe And Supportive Environment?

There are many ways that we can destigmatize substance use disorder and create a safe and supportive environment for people who experience it and their families. Here are some suggestions:

  • Educate ourselves and others about the facts and myths of substance use disorder. We can learn about the causes, symptoms, treatments, and recovery options for substance use disorder from reliable sources. We can also share our knowledge with others and correct any misinformation or stereotypes that we encounter.
  • Use person-first language when talking about substance use disorder. Person-first language is a way of speaking that respects the dignity and humanity of people who have substance use disorder. It emphasizes that they are more than their condition and that they have the potential to change and grow. For example, instead of saying, “he is an addict,” we can say, “he has substance use disorder,” or “he is a person who uses substances.”
  • Show empathy and compassion to people who have substance use disorder. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Compassion is the willingness to help alleviate their suffering. We can show empathy and compassion by listening without judgment, expressing care and concern, validating their emotions, and offering support.
  • Recognize the strengths and achievements of people who have substance use disorder. We can acknowledge their efforts to cope with their challenges, seek help, or make positive changes in their lives. We can also celebrate their successes and milestones in their recovery journey.
  • Refer others to helpful resources and services for substance use disorder. There are many options available for people who want to address their substance use disorder and their families, such as counseling, medication, peer support groups, online platforms, or recovery programs. A professional can help find the best fit for the individual’s needs and preferences.

Resources For Individuals And Families Who Are Experiencing Substance Use Disorder

Recovery is possible, and no one has to go through this journey alone. There are trained professionals who care about recovery and supporting individuals who want help. Here are a few reputable resources for substance use disorder. 

  • AA and Al-Anon: Mutual support groups that follow the 12-step model of recovery. AA is for people who are experiencing problems with alcohol, and Al-Anon is for those who are affected by someone else’s drinking.
  • SMART Recovery: A program that teaches self-management and behavioral skills to help people overcome substance use disorder and other addictive behaviors.
  • Rational Recovery: A method that uses cognitive techniques to help people quit using substances permanently and independently.
  • Women For Sobriety: A program that focuses on the specific needs and challenges of women who have substance use disorder.
  • Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS): A collection of groups that provide a secular alternative to 12-step programs for people who have substance use disorder.
  • SAMHSA - Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Read more about Overcoming Substance Use and How Workplaces Can Help

Treatment Options for Individuals and Families Experiencing Substance Use Disorder

  • Therapy: Individual therapy in a one-on-one setting where you can work with a therapist to understand the root causes of your SUD, develop coping mechanisms, and learn how to manage triggers. Individual therapy can help address co-occurring mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression. Click here to learn more about How To Get The Most Out of Therapy
  • Family or Couples Therapy: Family or couples therapy can help to repair relationships that SUD has damaged. It can also teach family members how to support their loved ones during recovery.
  • Group Therapy: Group therapy brings together people with SUD to share their experiences and support each other. Group therapy can be a helpful way to develop coping skills and learn from others who are also working to recover.
  • Support Groups: Support groups are similar to group therapy, but they are typically less structured and led by peers rather than professionals. Support groups can be a valuable source of support and encouragement for people in recovery. There are also several support groups available to family members of those with SUD.
  • Medication-assisted treatment (MAT): MAT combines medication and counseling to treat SUD. MAT is particularly effective for treating opioid use disorder, but it can also be used to treat other types of SUD. Medications used in MAT can help to reduce cravings, withdrawal symptoms, and the risk of relapse.


Substance use disorder is a serious and common condition that can affect anyone. It is often stigmatized and misunderstood, making it harder for people who experience it to seek help and recover. Destigmatizing SUD is essential because it can help to reduce the barriers to seeking help and treatment. It can also help to create a more supportive environment for people in recovery. By destigmatizing substance use disorder and creating a safe and supportive environment, we can help individuals, families, and communities heal and thrive.

This blog post was written by Christy Johnson, Counselor at Nivati. You can see more of their content on the Nivati platform and on the Nivati blog. If you want to learn more about Nivati, click here.

Christy Johnson
Christy Johnson
Christy Johnson is a licensed master social worker and mental health counselor that specializes in helping individuals increase feelings of safety and security in their bodies to help manage symptoms of depression, anxiety, anger, grief, and other difficult life challenges. Christy brings to the table a special focus on neuroscience, mindfulness, and real-world practices for emotional regulation and stress management. Christy graduated from New Mexico Highlands University with a Masters degree in social work in 2021 and currently practices as a mental health therapist.