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From Stigma to Strength: Showing Support in Recovery

Addiction is a disease that impacts not just the individual struggling with it, but also how they are perceived by their families, friends, and society.  Family and friends often feel helpless, confused, and even angry as they watch someone they care about battle addiction. Often we do not know how to react to the situation at hand.  However, with understanding and the right approach, you can become a pillar of strength in your loved one's recovery journey.

Breaking the Chains of Stigma

The first step in supporting someone in recovery is breaking down some of the walls of stigma. Addiction is a complex disease, not a moral failing. Educate yourself about addiction, its causes, and the various treatment options that are available. This knowledge will help you approach the situation with compassion and understanding.

Here are some of the most common forms of stigmas that people with substance use disorders face according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)

People who need care may not seek it. People with substance use disorders may face mistreatment, stereotyping, and negative bias from society, including in healthcare settings. These challenges may lead them to avoid seeking medical help.

In fact, in 2021, about 10.4% of people who felt they needed substance use treatment but did not receive it in the past year said they did not seek treatment because they feared attracting negative attitudes from their communities (2021)

People fear disclosing their substance use. 

If a person conceals their substance use in a medical setting due to fear of bias or mistreatment, they may miss important opportunities for care. For example, clinicians may not know to offer information about how drugs may interact with their prescribed medications or may not screen them for conditions related to substance use, like HIV, hepatitis, and mental illness. Pregnant women especially may avoid talking about substance use, or addiction, feeling shame and fearing social disapproval or loss of parental rights. 

People receive a poorer quality of care.

Some health professionals also have a bias toward people with addiction and may fail to provide evidence-based care as a result. A national survey of primary care providers in 2019 showed that while they generally understood opioid use disorder is a treatable condition, most also had stigmatizing attitudes against it, which affected the care they provided.

Racial disparities and other kinds of discrimination add an extra barrier to care for many people in healthcare settings. 

For example, Black people experience delays of up to five years in getting treatment for a substance use disorder compared to White people, and young Black people are less likely to be prescribed medication for opioid use disorder than their White peers. (NIDA)


People have reduced access to health programs. Medications for opioid use disorder, including methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone, are safe and effective treatments that help people recover. Yet because they must be taken regularly, and because methadone and buprenorphine can produce euphoria

(a “high”) in people without opioid use disorder, these medicines are often mistakenly seen as mere substitutes for illegal drugs and carry a similar stigma.

Similarly, syringe services programs, also known as needle exchanges, help link people to addiction treatment and help prevent health risks associated with using drugs, including HIV, hepatitis, and endocarditis. Yet some people shy away from these programs, fearing stigma from police, friends, family, and healthcare professionals.  However, many cities and towns have been slow to implement these and other harm-reduction programs, due in part to stigma-related policy and funding challenges. and the misconception that they promote illicit drug use.

People may increase their substance use. People with substance use disorders may already feel guilt and may blame themselves for their illness. They may have self-stigma, or adopt negative attitudes towards themselves around their substance use. These feelings of shame and isolation may in turn reinforce drug-seeking behavior. 

What Can We Do To Help Stop The Stigma?

Understand substance use disorders as chronic, treatable medical conditions. To eliminate the stigma surrounding substance use disorders, we need to see these disorders for what they are: chronic, treatable medical conditions. People with substance use disorders deserve compassion and respect—not blame for their illness.

Replace stigmatizing language.

An important step toward eliminating stigma is replacing stigmatizing language with preferred, empowering language that doesn’t equate people with their condition or have negative connotations. However, people experiencing substance use disorders or in recovery may choose to describe themselves and their own disorder with terms that work best for them, especially in certain contexts such as recovery support groups. NIDA has developed Words Matter: Preferred Language for Talking About Addiction, a guide for the general public on non-stigmatizing language.

Build a Supportive Environment. 

Creating a safe and supportive home environment is crucial for your loved one's recovery. Talk openly and honestly about addiction and expectations for their recovery. Set clear boundaries around substance use and establish consequences for relapse. 

Establishing trust within the recovery community is crucial for the sobriety of individuals who have overcome addiction. Attending NA/AA meetings plays a significant role in this process, as it enables them to connect with others and realize they are not alone in their recovery journey. Recognizing one's humanity is often overlooked in our daily lives, but it holds particular significance for those recovering from substance abuse.

During the initial stages of sobriety, individuals may struggle to see themselves as regular human beings due to the effects of drug use.

Therefore, forming connections and finding common ground with others is essential in the early stages of recovery. It is equally important to acknowledge that each person's path to recovery is unique.

Black and White image group of individuals sitting in a circle

At LA Valley Recovery, we take our clients to meetings multiple times a week, give their unique skills to be able to conquer their addictive behaviors, and set up a support system so that when they leave our facility, they will be able to continue their sobriety in a healthy, positive way.

Communication is Key

Effective communication is essential in any relationship, but especially so when supporting someone in recovery. Here’s how you can improve communication according to the NIDA and Recovery Centers of America.

Practice Active Listening

  • How: Give your full attention when your loved one is speaking. Nod, make eye contact, and use verbal acknowledgments like "I see" or "I understand."

  • Why: Active listening shows that you respect and care about their feelings and experiences.

Acknowledge Their Struggles Without Judgment

  • How: Use empathetic language such as "I can see this is really hard for you" instead of "Why can’t you just stop?"

  • Why: Judgment can shut down communication. According to the NIDA, negative attitudes and stereotypes can lead to stigma, which hinders recovery.

Encourage Open and Honest Expression

  • How: Create a safe space where your loved one feels comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings. Avoid interrupting or reacting negatively.

  • Why: Openness helps them process their experiences and seek help when needed.

Be Patient and Understanding:

  • How: Recognize that recovery involves ups and downs. Support them through setbacks without frustration.

  • Why: Recovery is not a linear process. According to NIDA, setbacks are a normal part of recovery.

Celebrate Progress:

  • How: Acknowledge even small victories with positive reinforcement. Statements like "I’m proud of you for going to your meeting today" can be powerful.

  • Why: Celebrating progress can boost their morale and motivation to continue their recovery journey.

Empowering Yourself and The Stigma

While you can be a pillar of support, you cannot control your loved one's recovery. It’s important to take care of yourself too. Here’s how:

Seek Support Groups for Families:

  • How: Look for local or online support groups such as Al-Anon or Nar-Anon. These groups provide a space to share your experiences and gain insights from others.

  • Why: According to NIDA, family support is crucial for recovery, and support groups can help you manage your own stress and emotions.

Learn Coping Mechanisms

  • How: Engage in activities that help you relax and recharge, such as exercise, meditation, or hobbies.

  • Why: Taking care of your own mental health is essential so you can be strong and supportive for your loved one.

Educate Yourself:

  • How: Read up on addiction and recovery from reliable sources like NIDA, Recovery Centers of America and more. Understanding the science behind addiction can help you empathize with your loved one.

  • Why: Knowledge reduces fear and stigma. NIDA emphasizes that understanding addiction as a chronic disease helps in providing better support.

Set Boundaries:

  • How: Clearly communicate what behaviors are unacceptable and what the consequences will be if those boundaries are crossed.

  • Why: Boundaries protect your well-being and can help your loved one understand the seriousness of their recovery.

Seek Professional Help When Needed:

  • How: Don’t hesitate to reach out to therapists or counselors who specialize in addiction and family dynamics.

  • Why: Professional guidance can provide strategies and support tailored to your situation.

Remember, You Are Not Alone

Supporting someone in recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. There will be a lot of frustration and discouragement. Seek professional help if you need guidance or are struggling to cope. Here at LA Valley Recovery, we understand the unique challenges faced by families. We offer support groups and a variety of resources to help you navigate the journey of recovery alongside your loved one once they get out of our treatment facility. Please do not hesitate to reach out to us to get more information.

If you or someone you know is looking for help for a drug or alcohol addiction, please get in touch with us today for help.



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