National Recovery Month: Hope Is Real, Recovery Is Real
In 2021, approximately 70% of people who ever had a perceived unhealthy relationship with substance use considered themselves to be recovering or in recovery.1 In this final week of National Recovery Month, it is critical to highlight the essential role that peer support plays in guiding individuals through recovery. We all contribute to recovery.
While recovery is generally characterized as a process of change to improve one’s own health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential, the process is unique to everyone and can include many pathways. It may include clinical treatment, medications, faith-based approaches, peer support, family support, self-care, and other approaches.
“The pathways of recovery from problematic substance relationships are very diverse, but all are real and potentially effective. Peers can help folks overcome barriers to linking with these self-directed pathways, while instilling hope that people can achieve their goals,” said Donald McDonald, MSW, a Technical Expert Lead in the Community and Rural Vitality Center at JBS, who shared his insights from his own personal and professional experiences with recovery. What may work for one person in recovery—and what it looks or feels like—may be different for another.
For a person in or seeking recovery, maintaining relationships and connecting with friends, family, loved ones, and others in the community are vital components of their recovery process. It is important to support a person in or seeking recovery as they make decisions about what’s right for them, especially because it is common for people to face stigma for their substance use disorder (SUD). This stigma stems from the inaccurate belief that SUD is a moral failing instead of a condition from which patients can recover and continue to lead healthy lives.
"Authentic peer support is incomplete without embracing a core value I learned from my harm reduction colleagues: respect for the inherent dignity and worth of all people, despite differing beliefs, behaviors, or backgrounds. We meet people where they are and walk beside them as they build community, purpose, and autonomy to achieve recovery as they define it." ~ Donald McDonald
Stigma can reduce the willingness of individuals with SUD to get treatment, as well as lead others to feel pity, fear, anger, and a desire to socially distance from those experiencing SUD.2,3 “As far as we think we have come, it is our ethical imperative to continue to explore our biases to ensure they don’t become barriers to best practice,” noted Mr. McDonald. One easy way to reduce this stigma and to show support for people with SUD on their path to recovery is through how we communicate about substance use. Here are a few considerations:
- When talking to people with an SUD, their loved ones, and colleagues, use nonstigmatizing language that reflects an accurate, science-based understanding of SUDs.
- Use person-first language, and let individuals choose how they are described.4 Person-first language maintains the integrity of individuals as whole human beings by removing words that equate people to their condition or have negative connotations.5 For example, “person with a substance use disorder” has a neutral tone and distinguishes the person from his or her diagnosis.
- Images and other visual components can be as effective as language in dismantling or in reinforcing stigmatizing stereotypes.6
- When selecting imagery related to substance use or to SUDs, emphasize people over substances, and depict optimistic and aspirational outcomes rather than harmful behavior.
- Avoid depicting substances; but, if they must be shown, use nontriggering and neutral images.
“There are so many of us [in recovery], and the pathways are very diverse. But all are authentic and credible and should be studied to help folks connect with the ingredients that lead to a sustained recovery,” says Mr. McDonald. Hope is real. Recovery is real. We can all contribute to recovery by understanding that it looks a little different for everyone and by supporting friends and loved ones in their individual recovery journeys.
More Resources on Recovery
- SAMHSA's Recovery Month Toolkit
- Find support for issues with mental health, drugs, or alcohol.
- NIDAMED's Words Matter – Terms to Use and Avoid When Talking About Addiction
1 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2023). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. PEP22-07-01-005, NSDUH Series H-57). https://www.samhsa.gov/data/report/2021-nsduh-annual-national-report
2 Hadland, S. E., Park, T. W., & Bagley, S. M. (2018). Stigma associated with medication treatment for young adults with opioid use disorder: A case series. Addiction Science & Clinical Practice, 13, 1–4 https://doi.org/10.1186/s13722-018-0116-2
3 Yang, L. H., Wong, L. Y., Grivel, M. M., & Hasin, D. S. (2017). Stigma and substance use disorders: An international phenomenon. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 30(5), 378–388. https://doi.org/10.1097/yco.0000000000000351
4 Pivovarova, E., & Stein, M. D. (2019). In their own words: Language preferences of individuals who use heroin. Addiction, 114(10), 1785–1790. https://doi.org/10.1111/add.14699
5 Ashford, R. D., Brown, A. M., McDaniel, J., & Curtis, B. (2019). Biased labels: An experimental study of language and stigma among individuals in recovery and health professionals. Substance Use & Misuse, 54(8), 1376–1384. https://doi.org/10.1080%2F10826084.2019.1581221
6 Hulsey, J., Zawislak, K., Sawyer-Morris, G., & Earnshaw, V. (2023). Stigmatizing imagery for substance use disorders: A qualitative exploration. Health & Justice, 11(1), 28. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40352-023-00229-6