Does the stigma around drugs and the people who use them cost lives?

Evidence demonstrates that many who could benefit from treatment can be discouraged from doing so by language, attitudes and behaviours that appear judgmental, even if these are displayed unwittingly. Stigma can negatively impact the morale of those providing support services, and friends and families of those at risk can often feel the effects of stigma by association, at a time when they too deserve support.

The Taskforce recognises that tackling stigma could make a significant contribution to reducing drug-related deaths in Scotland and has published a strategy paper supporting this and highlighting a way forward. We encourage all our stakeholders to be aware of the negative impact of stigma and work to ensure every touchpoint in support services projects a positive, encouraging outlook to those engaging with them. And we encourage our partners in their efforts to raise public awareness of the potentially devastating effects of stigma.

We also ask that anyone, including media, writing or commenting on issues relating to substance use, including drug related deaths, to do so without using the stigmatising language or imagery that perpetuates harm to those at risk. Instead, we support any effort to work together to create a safe space for those at risk, those in recovery, and people impacted by someone else’s substance use.

Images of drugs, broken bottles, paraphernalia, and people in vulnerable conditions can tend to be the stock images of alcohol and drugs that are used in most media articles. Yet these are negative and stigmatising.  Similarly, stigmatising language such as ‘user’ and ‘addict’ can be seen time and time again, together with terms such as ‘drug abuse’, ‘drug user’, and with people who are being interviewed are titled ‘ex-addict’ or ‘former drug abuser’.

We support the approach recommended by Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs (SFAD), and the Scottish Recovery Consortium in their joint research programme entitled Insert Standard Stigmatising Headline & Image Here: Rewriting the Media’s Portrayal of Addiction and Recovery and the six recommendations it has for journalists and editors:

  1. Use positive imagery
  2. Adopt People First language
  3. Use your article as an opportunity to educate
  4. Always include support service information
  5. Learn about lived experience and the impact of stigma
  6. Include more positive stories reflecting recovery, support, and lived/living experiences

Report available at

SFAD have also published a Reporting of Substance Media Toolkit which is available here: Reporting of Substance Media Toolkit - SFAD

In addition we would like to showcase the work of a young artist who has developed a comic displaying why language matters.  The authors and funder have given permission to download for display or distribution.

Millie Strachan is a comic artist based in Dundee. She has been creating comics for the last four years after joining Dundee Comics Creative Space. Millie is starting the Art & Design (general foundation) course at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in September 2020. She created the ‘language matters’ comic as part of a Society for the Study of Addiction funded knowledge exchange project led by Dr Tessa Parkes (University of Stirling) to examine the potential of a substance use prevention intervention, the Icelandic Model, in Dundee. Millie’s comic captures a discussion of the project team around the need for person-centred language when talking about people who use drugs and/or alcohol.

Language Matters Comic