End Stigma | Support and Education

Together, we can spread awareness and educate others to dismantle stigma in Pima County.

Stigma: /ˈstɪɡmə/
"A set of negative and unfair feelings that people have about a particular circumstance or characteristic that somebody may have"

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines RECOVERY as:

“a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.”

There are a lot of misconceptions about addiction and recovery that can be hurtful or damaging. Below are key facts to keep in mind.

FACT: Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain, not a weakness in character. 

Not everyone who uses drugs is addicted, but everyone can become addicted given the right circumstances. Addiction is a complicated disease and can be influenced by many factors: a stressful life event, poor living conditions, or a traumatic childhood experience. These factors can affect our relationship with addiction and how we cope with negative situations. Using drugs can impact the brain chemistry to release extra dopamine, a chemical that makes humans feel good. Drugs can rewire our brain and change how we feel pleasure and rewards in our daily lives. These physical changes within the brain make it even difficult to “just stop” using substances. 


There are personal choices involved in heart disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer, such as diet, exercise, and sun exposure. Having that initial choice does not determine whether something is a disease. Addiction is a brain disease and can be disabling and life threatening. Reminding ourselves and reframing our thoughts can be helpful to understand it as a disease 


For more information about how drugs impact the brain: CLICK HERE 

FACT: Recovery looks different for everyone. There is no wrong pathway to long-term recovery.  Some people respond very well to groups like Narcotics Anonymous. Others might prefer building a community in activities, such as sports groups.  The specific type of service, group, or activity that can help someone achieve balance and wellness will be different for everyone.  
FACT: Harm reduction is recovery. 

Recovery does not necessarily mean complete abstinence from substances. It is defined by the person themselves. Harm reduction is a set of practical strategies and ideas that reduce negative consequences associated with drug use, such as preventing overdoses and infectious disease transmission. Harm reduction empowers people to improve their health and well-being while achieving their own goals through small changes. 


For more information about harm reduction resources in Pima County: CLICK HERE 

FACT: Recovery is not linear.  Recovery is a process of continual growth that may involve setbacks. This could look like stressful life events, using drugs again, or struggling with other health problems. As with any illness, there is a perspective that with hard work you will feel better and you will be “cured,” but that is not always the case. Once people stop using drugs, life does not automatically get better. Sometimes, people will have a hard time learning to cope with difficult emotions or struggle with guilt or shame. Setbacks are a normal part of recovery and can become learning opportunities. Recognize and celebrate the small wins; this can be incredibly helpful and motivating in the recovery process. 
FACT: Medications for Opioid Use Disorders (MOUD) is an evidence-based treatment  MOUD includes treatments such as methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone. One of the biggest misconceptions it that these medications are a crutch. Just like there are medications to treat heart disease or diabetes, there are medications for substance use disorders that treat the disease of addiction by normalizing brain chemistry and body function, blocking the “high” effect, and relieving cravings. 

Person-first language is a simple way to start to break down stigma by using respectful language instead of language that can intentionally or unintentionally bring negativity to people with substance use disorders. Person-first language recognizes the person as opposed to focusing on the identity first. When we hear negative stereotypes (junkie/crackhead/etc.) or reduce the person to only their identity (addict/drug user/etc.), it can create more stigma for those struggling with substance use. It can make the general public think less of people using drugs or can make it even more difficult for someone who uses drugs to believe in themselves or reach out for help. 

Stigma of people who use drugs is prevalent as show through negative stereotypes and judgements. Below are three ways stigma can show up in our communities:  

  1. – Public Stigma: When the community and the public have negative attitudes and judgements towards people who use drugs, have substance use disorders, or mental health concerns. This can look like media making people who use drugs look dangerous or violent in the news coverage, jokes about people who use drugs, or assumptions that the community make about people who use drugs. 
  1. – Self-Stigma: When someone who uses drugs or has a mental health condition hears judgements or assumptions within their communities, it can lead to more self-doubt and negativity within themselves. This process is called “internalization” and can affect someone’s ability to seek help or believe in themselves. 
  1. – Institutional Stigma: When different policies, laws, and organizations intentionally or unintentionally discriminate against people who use drugs, it makes the lives of people who are using drugs or even those in recovery harder by providing less opportunities. This can look like a company refusing to hire someone because of their past or people not having the same opportunity for housing. 

Example of person first language: 

Instead of…  Use… 
Addict/Junkie/User  Person with a substance use disorder, person struggling with substance use, person who has an unhealthy relationship with drugs 
Reformed addict/former addict  Person in recovery 
Clean/Dirty  Sober/Not Sober or Tested Negative/Tested Positive 

Person-first language is a simple, yet powerful tool to change the way we think about people who use drugs and frame them first, as people. It’s okay to make mistakes but continue to keep an open mind and chose words that are less stigmatizing. This helps to not only address any stigma you may have towards people who use drugs, but also can impact the way other people around you see people who use drugs. 


Sometimes people may prefer the identity first as an empowerment to reclaim their identity and it is ultimately their choice to self-identify. Be respectful and don’t assume people want to be called an addict. If you are unsure about their preferences, stick with person-first language.  

Having a social support network can help people stay committed to treatment and their recovery. Support can come in many forms. Being present for them can be a positive force in their recovery. Show concern and ask them how you can show them support. Take their lead, while also establishing healthy boundaries.  


Together you can: 

  • – Help develop a plan for recovery 
  • – Identify goals for physical and mental health, employment, family, and relationships 
  • – Communicate and set appropriate boundaries and expectations, such as: 
  •                     – Not allowing substance use around you, your home, or property 
  •                     – Not tolerating abusive behavior in any form 
  •                     – Not lying or covering for them, regardless of circumstance 
  •                     – Not allowing drug paraphernalia into your home 
  • – Attend support meetings together 
  • – Seek out treatment services and professional support (link to provider search) 


Seeing someone struggle with substance use can be heartbreaking and painful. Here are a few reminders to practice when interacting with people who use drugs: 

  • – Avoid placing blame 
  • – Avoid judgmental language 
  • – Avoid comparing them to others 
  • – Practice patience 
  • – Practice active listening  
  • – Practice person-first language  
  • – Be educated about substance use disorders 
  • – Recognize the small successes 
  • – Make time for yourself and prioritize self-care 
  • – Model the healthy behaviors 
  • – Set healthy boundaries 
  • – Find alternative ways to spend time together that doesn’t involve substance use
  • – Focus on people’s strength 

Your wellbeing is important! Remember that taking care of yourself is a priority. Supporting a loved one who is struggling with substance use is difficult and can have a lasting impact on you. It can be painful, complicated, and overwhelming. Make space for yourself to breathe and seek safe supports that you can rely on too. 


Support groups:  


If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call 988. 

Crisis may look different for each person. Anyone can have a mental health crisis that is impacting their ability to function. A mental health crisis can be caused by stressful events, such as losing a job, a break up, a death in the family, trauma, or stress from poverty. You may be experiencing a crisis if you are experiencing: 

  • – Rapid mood swings 
  • – Agitation 
  • – Aggressive behavior 
  • – Confused thinking or irrational thoughts 
  • – Feelings to hurt yourself or hurt others 
  • – Withdrawing from usual social activities 
  • – Hallucinations, delusions, or paranoia 
  • – Extreme changes in your diet 
  • – Losing touch with reality 

If you feel like you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call 988. For other available crisis lines nationally or in Pima County, you can use our crisis reference guide: https://pimahelpline.org/247-hotlines/