According to, the definition of stigma is “a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one’s reputation.” The medical definition the site provides goes on to say, “a mental or physical mark that is characteristic of a defect or disease.” 

You may have heard phrases such as “the stigma of mental health” or “the stigma of addiction.” But hearing those phrases doesn’t bring a true understanding of what stigma is or how damaging it can be.  

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”
Remember that saying from when we were young? It was something our parents often said to us. Some of truly believed that words cannot hurt us, but now we know differently. We know that words build up and tear down. They create bullies and contribute to mental health disorders. They can inspire and encourage us.

When we learn that someone has a substance use disorder, the words that come to mind reveal our biases. We quickly realize that describing someone as a junkie is hurtful, but what about addict or substance abuser? Do we recognize that they are just as harmful?