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What is Stigma?

Our behavioral health is a crucial part of our overall health and these resources are shared to begin a conversation and improve our communities by making it more acceptable for those suffering to seek help and learn how to address their behavioral health needs. We’ve targeted the best resources to address Stigma. The collection of resources below will give employer groups, members and caregivers access to the best, free online resources from leading organizations and experts in behavioral health. 

“We must all confront the intangible and often devastating effects of stigma. The key to recovery is support and compassion. Patients in pain and patients with a substance use disorder need comprehensive treatment, not judgment.”

Patrice A. Harris, MD, MA, chair AMA Opioid Task Force

Q: What is stigma?

A: Behavioral health stigma is prejudice or discrimination against individuals in active addiction or recovery from a substance use disorder, individuals with behavioral health conditions, and families impacted by these diseases. Discrimination may be obvious and direct, such as someone making a negative remark about your condition or treatment. Or it may be unintentional or subtle, such as someone avoiding you because the person assumes you could be unstable, violent or dangerous. You may even judge yourself. We need to stop discrimination. Stigma stops too many people from getting help early, when it is most effective. 

Did you know? 

  • An estimated 26 percent of adults have a diagnosable behavioral health illness in a given year; about 21 percent of children ages 9 to 17 have a diagnosable behavioral health illness (mental or addictive). 
  • One in two of us will have a behavioral health issue during our lifetime. 
  • Less than one-third of adults with a mental health issue will get help. 
  • Stigma has been identified as a major reason that only about half  of all Americans with serious behavioral health issues seek treatment.  
  • In one survey, many people reported they would rather tell employers they committed a petty crime and served time in jail, than admit to having been in a psychiatric hospital or substance use disorder program. 
  • Science has proven that substance use disorder is a chronic brain disease that can be managed with medical treatment. It is NOT a moral failing or a character flaw.  But still, only 1 in 10 Americans with a substance use disorder receive treatment.   
  • Addiction is highly stigmatized, and that stigma is fueling an American public health crisis.
  • Stigma is perpetuated in the media, which often portrays individuals with behavioral health conditions as violent and unable to contribute to society. However, research consistently shows that behavioral health issues—by themselves—are not significantly linked to violence. In fact, they are much more likely to be a victim of violence than a perpetrator.
  • Language is closely related to stigma. Using negative labels such as calling someone “crazy” or “a schizophrenic” (not “a person with schizophrenia”) or language that emphasizes limitations, not abilities, strongly influences our and others’ perceptions.
  • What can you do to fight stigma? Communication is key. Seek knowledge, and don’t be afraid to talk to trusted others about your behavioral health concerns.

Q: What can you do about stigma?

Recognize when you or your loved ones need help. Recognize the signs. Recognize when someone isn’t getting the help they need. Recognize when stigma is creating a barrier to care. Recognize the high prevalence of behavioral health issues.

Reeducate others to help them learn there is help and hope. Reeducate yourself and others on behavioral health. Reeducate yourself and others on how to find the path to recovery and that it is possible for all. Reeducate yourself on resources: What are your current benefits? Who can you talk to? What can you do?

Reduce stigma. Reduce hesitation to seeking care. Reduce misunderstandings. Reduce bullying and insensitivity.

Q: How can you help address stigma?  

Remember the words you use matter. Person-first language is proven to reduce stigma and improve treatment. It’s not about being sensitive, polite or politically correct. It is about access to quality treatment and care. Person-first language doesn’t define a person based on any medical disorder he/she may have. Instead, respectful language emphasizes the person’s dignity and worth, not the condition or disability. Also, addiction is a brain disease, not a moral failing. A significant body of research shows that addiction is a chronic illness like asthma, hypertension and diabetes. The word abuse encourages stigma. Promote the use of stigma-free language and use these helpful tips. 

  1. People have disorders; they do not become a disorder. Avoid referring to people as  “schizophrenics,” “alcoholics,” or “anorexics.”  Instead, use such phrases as “people with schizophrenia” or “individuals who have anorexia.” 
  2. Avoid using words that imply negativity, such as “problem” to describe a medical condition or describe an individual as mentally ill. 
  3. Avoid descriptions that imply pity, such as “afflicted with,” “suffers from,” or “victim of.” 
  4. When discussing suicide, avoid saying “committed suicide,” as it implies a criminal activity or error. 
  5. Avoid derogatory terms, such as “insane,” “crazy/crazed,” “nuts,” or “deranged.” 
  6. Conditions and disorders should not be capitalized (exceptions are certain disorder names that include proper nouns, such as Tourette’s syndrome or Asperger’s syndrome). 
  7. Avoid words that glamorize suicide, such as “failed suicide,” “unsuccessful suicide” or “successful suicide.” Instead use “took their own life” or “suicide attempt.” 

Words Matter

Labeling a person by a disorder or challenge they have encourages others, as well as the affected person, to see only the disease or problem, not the whole person. It is demeaning; they may have a condition, but  the condition need not define them.


  • Addict 
  • Druggie
  • Abuse
  • Junkie
  • Depressive
  • Psycho
  • Crazy
  • Schizo
  • Borderline
  • Clean, sober
  • Former addict, reformed alcoholic


Person with…

  • depression
  • addiction
  • the disease of addiction
  • a substance use disorder
  • bipolar disorder
  • Abstinent, not actively using
  • Person in recovery

Resources from leading organizations and experts in behavioral health. 

Stamp Out Stigma is an initiative spearheaded by the Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness (ABHW) to reduce stigma surrounding mental illness and substance use disorders. This campaign challenges each of us to transform the dialogue on mental health and addiction from a whisper to a conversation. Learn more

Shatterproof is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to reversing the addiction crisis in the United States by transforming addiction treatment, shattering stigma of addiction, advocating for federal and state policy change and prayer reform, and supporting and educating the community. Learn more

Campaign to Change Direction is a campaign to change the culture of mental health so that all of those in need receive the care and support they deserve. The campaign encourages everyone to pay attention to their emotional well-being – and it remind us that our emotional well-being is just as important as our physical well-being. Campaign to Change provides users with a tool, the Five Signs of Emotional Suffering and the Healthy Habits of Emotional Well-Being, so that we all have a common language to identify when someone is suffering and how we can stay emotionally healthy. Learn more

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is the agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that leads public health efforts to advance the behavioral health of the nation and to improve the lives of individual living with mental and substance use disorders, and their families. Their mission is to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illnesses on America’s communities. SAMHSA has a variety of wonderful family resources on how to start the conversation and how best to support a loved one. Learn more.   

The American Medical Association (AMA) promotes the art and science of medicine and the betterment of public health. The AMA has a variety of resources on substance use disorders and how to put an end to stigma. Learn more.