Recovery Month: Tips for empowering people living with substance use issues


September is recovery month. It’s about acknowledging and celebrating that people living with substance use issues (SUI) can get better and recover over the long term. During this time, we say and post important things. These messages include the importance of getting help. People point out the high level of stigma surrounding substance use problems and how damaging it can be. Organizations share knowledge and outline how they are providing care and support to individuals living with SUI. 

This is all great, but with every year that September ticks by— we miss opportunities. Millions of people experience problems with alcohol or drugs each year. Many do not get help. Shame and stigma are alive and thriving. Raising awareness is vital and helpful. But it’s not the same as taking action. Awareness followed by action helps empower people living with SUI. 

Here are two pathways to help turn awareness into action, 365 days a year. 

What can organizations do?

Increase the use of technology in care 

Organizations can empower people living with SUI by providing more accessible treatment and support. This means people should be able to access services and resources in a variety of ways. COVID ignited the use of telehealth across the board. People should be able to continue to access services remotely if they can’t show up in person. 

Technology can be leveraged in other ways. Most people have smartphones and use them every day. Many behavioral health orgs are building mobile apps that provide clinical support to people living with behavioral health issues. They are exploring ways that phones can be used as therapeutic devices. People living with SUI can face a crisis or risky situation within minutes. Their ability to access immediate support can make a difference.

Be available 

It sounds obvious, but when someone asks for help, help them. Again— in that exact moment— not later. People living with SUI often experience fluctuations in their willingness to get help. Organizations need to be equipped to connect people with care and services the second they ask. Returning a phone call hours later may not work. 

Ask people about substance use 

People may not ask for help, even in a therapeutic context. Clinicians should ask patients about substance use, especially if they show signs or symptoms. Asking more than once and in different ways increases the likelihood that someone will talk about their problems. For example, completing a survey over the computer or in an app can be less intimidating than a face-to-face encounter with a doctor or therapist. 

At Mindstrong, we use a measurement-based care approach for people living with mental health issues. We regularly ask members to fill out clinical surveys via a mobile app. One survey asks about substance use along with other aspects of mental health like anxiety and depression.  

Recently, a Mindstrong therapist noticed that a member reported substance use issues on their latest survey. She had worked with the member for a long time and substance use hadn’t come up in their conversations. She was able to explore this during their next session and now they are working on those issues. This was possible because the questions were asked in a non-threatening, voluntary way. The therapist reviewed the information and was willing to discuss it with the member. 

Read between the lines

Clinicians: be aware that even if you ask, people may not talk about substance use problems. Focus on what patients aren’t telling you. Look for things that may indirectly signal problems and be willing to ask about it. Send a survey if you think an indirect approach is better. Break through whatever reasons you may have for not wanting to ask. 

What can individuals do?  

Many people experience challenges with substance use in their lives. Everyone has people with SUI in their lives, including friends and family. Each of us has opportunities to empower people living with SUI if we choose to do so. Here’s how: 

Use person-centered language

The title of this blog is very intentional. Negative attitudes, prejudice, and stigma often prevent people from admitting they have a problem and seeking help. Research shows that terms like “addict” and “substance abuse” fuel stigma and negative beliefs about people with SUI. These terms also equate the person with their issues. People are not defined by a condition or characteristic. Person-centered language describes an aspect of the person without equating it with their core identity. Hence, people living with substance use issues

Use person-centered language when describing people living with SUI. Avoid using stigmatizing terms and correct yourself immediately if you do. Do the same with other people and explain why language is so important. Respectfully correcting others holds them accountable and sets a standard for them to follow. And hopefully – they correct others as well.  

Understand and look for signs of a problem

People struggling with substance use often show signs and symptoms. These include changes in sleeping and eating habits, performance problems at work or school, and unusual changes in mood or emotions. If you see abrupt, unpredictable changes in behavior, talk with the person about what you see. Be careful to focus on facts and avoid making assumptions or accusations. Give them a chance to share what is going on, but don’t force them. If they admit having issues but aren’t ready to talk about it, let them know you will support them if or when they are ready. 

Be willing to challenge stigmatizing behaviors and attitudes 

Stigma is often perpetuated at the level of individuals. We can break down stigma by challenging negative beliefs and actions as soon as they happen – both within ourselves and in others. We can correct people who make false, misinformed statements about people living with SUI. We can point out that substance use can become a mental health issue, like anxiety and depression. We can point out that people are not defined by their problems. 

We can also talk about the damage that people experience because of these attitudes. We can ask people to be accountable for not strengthening substance-related stigma through their words and actions. We empower people living with SUI by asking and expecting people to change.

Let’s make this recovery month about empowerment

Unchecked stigma and negative biases block healthy recovery from substance use problems. Let’s do more this recovery month to support individuals living with SUI. Better yet, let’s try doing more on a continuous basis. We have countless opportunities to support others and treat them with dignity and respect. Awareness is important, but actions help save lives. 

About the author
Audrey Klein
Audrey Klein

Audrey is a doctoral-level psychologist who has worked in the behavioral health treatment industry for 15 years. Before Mindstrong, she led the Butler Center for Research at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, where she designed, implemented and evaluated new treatment programs for individuals with substance use and mental health disorders. She currently leads the Clinical Operations and Design team at Mindstrong.