Breaking the Stigma: Empowering Pregnant Women and Mothers With Substance Use Disorder Through Compassionate Language in Health Care
Language shapes our perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes, and it can influence the quality-of-care people receive. Unfortunately, pregnant individuals and mothers with substance use disorder (SUD) often face harsh judgment and discrimination due to the stigma surrounding their circumstances. Stigma against pregnant people can be reflected in the (1) language used to describe them and (2) assumptions others hold about how they should behave according to preconceptions about gender roles and parental abilities.
Stigma, in turn, can reduce health-seeking behavior and access to treatment or prenatal care. Healthcare providers (HCPs) must be aware of the impact of stigmatizing language on people with SUD, particularly pregnant women and mothers. The language we use when discussing SUD should prioritize compassion, understanding, and support. Person-first language emphasizes the individuality and inherent worth of a person before their condition or circumstance.
The JBS NIDAMED team developed Words Matter. Over 40 women in addiction treatment reviewed this resource, which offers profound extracts from their real-life experiences dealing with stigma. It also includes research-based advice and terminology to use and avoid when discussing substance use and addiction with pregnant women and mothers.
This resource has made a significant impact, as reflected in the Women's Words Matter continuing medical education (CME) statistics. The CME course has garnered 4,070+ total participants, with 1,700+ activity completers and 1,680+ CME/CE certificates issued. By adopting this approach, health professionals can help reduce the stigma and negative bias associated with SUDs through:
- Avoiding Judgmental Language. Health professionals are encouraged to use neutral and nonjudgmental language when discussing addiction or SUD with pregnant women and mothers. This helps create a safe space where individuals feel comfortable seeking care and support.
- Focusing on Strengths and Resilience. By highlighting their strengths and resilience, HCPs can empower pregnant women and mothers and promote a sense of self-worth. Celebrating their efforts and acknowledging their potential for positive change can be a powerful motivator.
- Using Inclusive Terminology. The guide lists non-stigmatizing terms when communicating with people with SUD and with others. Stigmatizing language in medical records can transmit bias and negatively affect the care other clinicians provide. Clinicians should inform patients about outdated coding language and the possibility of encountering stigmatizing terms. It is crucial for health professionals to use inclusive, non-stigmatizing language to promote understanding and support.
What's next for Women's Words Matter? The resource continues to evolve and adapt to the changing needs of HCPs and the communities they serve. Ongoing research, feedback from practitioners, and input from affected populations inform updates to the language guide, ensuring its relevance and effectiveness.