“She was such a good kid…” A little while back, I met up with a friend for coffee. She proceeded to tell me about a family member who is currently struggling with substance use issues. She described how heartbroken the family is, how confused and worried, and then she told me how smart this young lady is, what a good family she comes from, how she is so talented and put together. And then she said those six words … “she was such a good kid.”
I didn’t realize until after the conversation occurred how much that phrase disturbed me. What do those words mean? Was she actually saying that now that this young woman is suffering with an illness, she is a “bad” kid? Believe me, my friend is very enlightened, compassionate, and kind. She really meant nothing by those words, but something kept nagging at me afterward. When I had a moment to reflect, I realized how stigmatizing those words were. I almost wanted go back and ask her, “is she now a bad kid because she’s struggling with substance use?” Of course, she would have said no, and realized she made the all-too-common mistake of failing to recognize addiction for what it is, a medical condition, a mental health issue that has nothing to do with a person’s character.
At Communities Confronting Substance Abuse (CCSA), we work so hard to eliminate stigma – this past week we even changed our organization’s logo and marketing materials to read “Communities Confronting Substance Use & Addiction” rather than “Communities Confronting Substance Abuse.” Through our work these last few years, we realized that using the word “abuse” in our name and in our vernacular holds negative connotations for those suffering. When people hear the word “abuse,” they associate it with a purposeful infliction of harm or some kind of moral failing. Even changing one word goes a long way to shattering the stigma associated with addiction.
We know that stigma isolates people, discouraging them from seeking help when they need it, preventing families and sufferers from getting the support and treatment that could improve outcomes. According to recent data released by the CDC, drug overdose deaths in the United States rose by almost 30% in 2020. Given that over 20 million Americans struggle with addiction, and, last year, the overdose rate in America peaked at over 93,000 deaths, we cannot let this go unheeded. By eliminating stigma, we are allowing these people to come forward and literally saving lives.
Over 20 million Americans struggle with addiction. Last year, the overdose rate peaked in America with a devastating 93,000+ deaths due to drug overdoses.
Stigmatizing language is not always explicit, like being able to single out the word “abuse” (or “addict” “junkie” or “drunk” for that matter) and replacing it with something that does not have a harmful implication like “use” or “misuse” (or “person with substance/alcohol use disorder”). Sometimes stigmatizing language is implicit. It catches you unawares and takes you a minute to realize that there is something damaging hidden in a common phrase or thought that seemed harmless on the surface.
My friend meant nothing by what she said, but the fact that she said it, that it was her visceral response to seeing this amazing human being now struggling with substances, reveals such a deep-seated stigma that it may be hard for any of us to recognize it, whether in ourselves or others. I know, when our family dealt with this very situation, we had to reframe everything we thought we knew about addiction. We didn’t think this happened to “good kids” from loving families, certainly not to us. As we teach our youth in our prevention programming, drugs are not “bad,” drugs are “dangerous.”
No one is a bad person for struggling with substance use, but they are ill, and they do need our help and understanding, and deserve our compassion and kindness. We all need to do a check on ourselves, our attitudes, our perceptions, the language we use, and make sure that we are not inflicting harm on others, whether intentionally or out of ignorance … otherwise WE are really the abusers.