How to Talk About the stigma of opioid misuse

In 2019, nearly 50,000 people in the United States died from opioid-involved overdoses. Anyone who has been prescribed opioids for pain management is at risk of developing addiction. Opioid use, even short term, can lead to addiction and overdose.

While talking about substance use disorders and opioid misuse are challenging topics to address, studies have shown that not only keeping an open line of communication but also how we are addressing these topics can reduce stigmatized barriers for individuals and their families. Removing the stigma behind addiction creates a safe and supportive environment allowing access to necessary care and support.

This is known as “person-first language” – where a person is put before their diagnosis, talking about what they “have” rather than what they “are” in a nonjudgmental way – and it’s a simple but effective key to a healthy discussion on opioid misuse.

Keep things personal: Discuss how opioid misuse impacts both the person and you as someone who loves them.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy recommends using terms such as:


  • Person with substance use disorder
  • Substance use disorder
  • Drug misuse/harmful use
  • Person with substance use disorder
  • Abstinent/not actively using
  • Actively using
  • Testing negative for substance use
  • Testing positive for substance use
  • Person in recovery/long-term recovery
  • Medications for addiction treatment


  • Addict
  • Drug problem/habit
  • Drug abuse
  • Drug abuser
  • Clean
  • Dirty
  • A clean drug screen
  • A dirty drug screen
  • Former/reformed addict
  • Opioid repalcement/methadone maintenance

The mounting opioid crisis threatens our friends, families and communities. Moving forward, we can recognize and stand up to the challenge. We can seek opportunities to reduce the stigma felt by those burdened with addiction. We can educate and mobilize for the sake of our neighbors in need—strengthening congregational care.

People suffering from addiction need to know they are not alone—that there is someone who cares, someone who will connect them to the resources they need to gain recovery. Taking the time to educate and empower yourself and others in the fight against opioid addiction is a critical first-line defense to ending the impact of opioid abuse for all.


No family is immune to the effects of drugs. Parents who stay updated on the latest trends or are educated on the effects of opioid misuse, can pass along that learned knowledge to their children. Learned information can clear up any potential misconceptions that may be shared in social circles. As a natural role-model to children, personal views on alcohol, tobacco and drugs can strongly influence how children think.

What can parents do to prevent opioid misuse?

  • Take advantage of "teachable moments" at an early age. Be open to communicating about drugs and how they could cause harm.
  • Be involved. Get to know your child’s friends and their parents. Seek opportunities to be involved in anti-drug programs in your community.
  • Recognize when kids may be going through difficult times. Let them know support as their parent is always available with judgement-free listening. Show support by offering an open-mind and a listening ear and providing access to additional care if needed.
  • Find time to regularly talk with your children each day. Finding time to do things as a family helps everyone stay connected and maintain open communication.
  • As silly as it may sound, role-playing helps develop strategies to turn down drugs if they are offered. Act out possible scenarios they may encounter. These scenarios will help them construct phrases and responses to say no and prepares them to know how to respond.
  • As kids age, start conversations by asking what they think about drugs. Asking questions in a nonjudgmental, open-ended way, will likely lead to an honest response.
  • Consider making a written or verbal contract with older children on rules for going out or using the car. An option could be that parents promise to pick the kids up at any time (even 3 a.m.!), no questions asked, especially if there is potential harm. Contracts could also detail other situations. Establishing rules early on can make your expectations clear and could eliminate negative situations.
  • In case of a sport's injury, talking to your child’s doctor about non-opioid pain relief options for pain provides a safe alternative to prescription opioids. If an opioid prescription is needed, talk to your child about the dangers of misusing prescription opioids and monitor their use. Let children know it is never okay to share medications with others.

In addition to having open and candid conversations with children about opioid misuse, make sure to keep prescription medications out of reach and dispose of medications safely. Visit to download our toolkit or to learn more on how to talk to children.


If you know someone who may have an opioid use disorder, the thought of approaching them about it has likely been considered. Reaching out to someone with an opioid addiction can feel difficult even for people who have professional training but starting this conversation could save the person’s life.

What can you do to help a friend?

  • Listen. If this starting point sparks a conversation, just be there for them. Admitting a problem—never mind talking to someone about it—is hard. Listen to what is said without making judgments.
  • Share information on opioid misuse and its effects in one’s life. This will remove any misconceptions in case the friend does not believe their drug use is a bad thing.
  • When they’re ready to change and seek treatment, help the friend find a doctor, therapist, support group, or treatment program. Visit to locate a treatment center near you or call SAMHSA’s national hotline at 1–800–662–HELP (4357).
  • Continue to support and don’t give up, even if friend isn’t quite ready to seek help. Keep reaching out and encourage them to get treatment and support them along the way.


If a coworker gets hurt on the job, their doctor may prescribe opioids to help reduce pain. These powerful drugs could potentially lead to opioid misuse or addiction even if only used for a short period of time.

Learn the early warning signs of opioid misuse and addiction. Failure to follow through with commitments, missed deadlines, changes in hygiene, easily distracted behavior, and decreases in attendance are all signs of misuse. It’s important to remember that seeing signs doesn’t guarantee opioid misuse, but if there is a change in their performance, it can provide an opportunity to reach out to them privately.

What can be done to help a coworker?

  • Be sure to talk to a coworker from a standpoint of caring and compassion with an emphasis on health and safety. Avoid blame and judgment.
  • Be direct, but not accusatory in tone conversation about opioid misuse.
  • Allow them the opportunity to explain their behavior. There may be legitimate reasons for the symptoms, such as health problems or a stressful family situation.
  • Discuss the issue with a supervisor in private. If the situation requires immediate intervention or a person’s safety is at risk, do not wait to have this conversation.

To learn more on how to promote recovery in the workplace, visit our Opioid Workplace Awareness Initiative Toolkit at This toolkit was developed to provide practical tools employers can use to create a healthy, supportive work environment for Mississippians who may be at greater risk for opioid dependence and addiction.

Faith Based Organizations

A faith-based community is a place where love and support can be felt the most. However, caring is simply not enough. Education and guidance can be helpful resources for the friends and family on the front lines of a loved one’s addiction. Every congregation has likely had members affected in some way by the opioid crisis, and many faith leaders are unaware of just how close to home the epidemic is.

Faith-based organizations have a unique opportunity to come alongside those suffering, especially their own members, at three critical stages—prevention, intervention, and recovery. However, most faith leaders hesitate to speak openly about the opioid crisis and share facts about the dangers. Talking openly can help eliminate the stigma around seeking help for addiction.

So, what can your organization/church do?