How To Deal With Stigma Against Mental Health And Substance Use

It’s no secret that talking about mental health and substance use can be difficult. While the topics have become more normalized in recent years, it can still be an internal battle to work up the courage to be vulnerable when speaking about them.

As someone who has long struggled with depression and anxiety, as well as substance use disorder in the past, I’ve chosen to be open about my recovery from all three. However, it hasn’t always been easy. Putting yourself out there, especially on the internet in the form of writing, comes with a certain level of fear. People are not always kind or understanding. There is still a certain stigma that exists when it comes to being open about such struggles.

Here are a few of the ways I’ve tried to be conscious of such stigma and pushed fear aside in order to share my own experiences.

1. Remember your journey is your own.

No one can tell you you are right or wrong for having handled it or worked through it the way you have. When you are open about your recovery from mental health and substance use struggles, people feel that gives them the right to comment on what has worked for you and tell you whether that is wrong/right in their eyes. What these types of people don’t realize is that different things work for different people and there is no absolute way to recovery or share about your journey. It can be tough to shake it off when people tell you you have handled your own life in the wrong way, but you have to do your best to ignore those comments and move forward with the same confidence that allowed you to open up in the first place.

2. Be willing to educate people about the topics.

Not all people who are negative or perpetuate stigma are doing so on purpose. Some simply haven’t been educated about mental health and substance use -- and the reality is that you don’t know what you don’t know. If someone makes a comment that seems uninformed, do your best to approach it in a calm manner, while also taking the opportunity to teach them something new. However, keep in mind not to come across in a patronizing manner, or what you are saying will likely not be well-received. Instead of laying into someone with facts, ask them if they are interested in learning more or if they’ve ever really taken the time to learn about what is often underlying mental health and substance use. Most people will at least be open to a conversation and you will know you’ve done what you can in sharing.

3. Be aware of the language you use when speaking and sharing.

Language goes a long way, and some of the language that has been used for ages in reference to mental health and substance use has negative connotations. For example, avoid using the terms “addiction” and “addict” whenever possible. Instead of saying addict, humanize the person you are speaking about by saying something like “a person with a substance use disorder.” The same goes for mental health diagnoses. Rather than saying “so-and-so is depressed,” or “he is ODC,” try to humanize the person and express that they struggle with that particular diagnosis. In order to break down the stigma around mental health and substance use, we have to be conscious of the way we talk about it and teach others to talk about it. Also keep in mind that language that is used today isn’t necessarily going to be the language used in a few years. It’s important to stay up-to-date on the best language to use in order to educate most effectively.  

4. Confront your own shame and any stigma you harbor.

It’s difficult to destigmatize and educate others if you are still struggling to forgive yourself for things related to mental health and substance use, or you still have your own false notions of each. Take some time to reflect on whether this is the case for you personally. If it is, think hard about why. More often than not, you’ll realize it’s past time to forgive yourself and move forward in your life. Only then can you really start to open up the dialogue around such sensitive topics without your own feelings completely dictating the conversation. When you have forgiven yourself for your struggles and taken the time to move forward and understand your past, you can begin to teach others to do the same.  

As with anything in the field of wellness, the conversation around mental health and substance use disorder is constantly ebbing and flowing. If sharing and destigmatizing is important to you personally, take the time to stay up-to-date on the changing conversation and current events so you can best educate and speak about your own experiences in order to help others.

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Beth Leipholtz is the founder of  Life to be Continued, a blog about the realities of getting sober young. She writes about her own experience falling into addiction and how she found her way back out. Beth also works as a graphic designer in Minnesota. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @EL9292