How to talk about Opioid Use Disorder

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Your words matter. 

The words you use to talk about Opioid Use Disorder—and the patients who suffer from it—are powerful.

When you change your language, you can help a person in recovery feel more supported and valued.

Our Treatment Services staff created this guide to help you understand and talk about OUD. 

About 70% of people who need treatment aren’t in treatment.

We need treatment solutions that meet people where they are. The new Meds First program offered at Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department in partnership with Tacoma Needle Exchange provides a door for people who are ready for help—and ready to start today. 

Treatment should be geared toward patients’ individual needs.

Many people with OUD benefit from treatment with medication, including lifelong treatment. Ongoing outpatient medication treatment for OUD is linked to better retention and outcomes.

Approaching OUD as a chronic illness can help patients stabilize, achieve remission of symptoms, and establish and maintain recovery.

  • Medication use can be short- or long-term.
  • Use should be medically supervised.
  • Patients need access to medical care, addiction counseling and recovery support services while using medication.
  • Treatment might take a lifetime.
  • Patients taking medication are considered to be in recovery.
  • Treatment with medication saves lives. It reduces opioid-related deaths by 50%.

3 medications are FDA approved to treat Opioid Use Disorder.

  • Methadone: The answer for people who have developed a tolerance to opioids and need a higher level of care. Patients get the dose they need to recover without getting high from it. These patients also get regular counseling for:
    • Relapse prevention.
    • Overcoming past trauma.
    • Improving personal relationships.
  • Buprenorphine: Relieves people’s withdrawal symptoms and reduces cravings for some.
  • Naltrexone: Works best for people who have already abstained from opioid use. It makes people very sick if they take opioids while using it.

Choose your words carefully.

  • Use language that will not reinforce prejudice, negative attitudes, or discrimination.
  • Avoid labels. They can reinforce the shame and judgement someone in recovery might feel.
  • Be supportive. Ask how the patient is doing. Their recovery shouldn’t always be the topic of conversation. Let them know you’re happy to see them. Remind them they can count on your support if they need help.

Barriers to treatment exist.  

Institutional and administrative barriers contribute to the underuse of medication for OUD. Many people who aren’t in treatment want help. We need to provide treatment options that fit the needs of the patient. Each person’s recovery path is unique. That’s why patient centered treatment is so important.  

Expanding access to medications is an important public health strategy. The gap between the number of people who need treatment and the capacity to treat them with medication is substantial.

Source: SAMHSA’s TIP 63 Medications for Opioid Use Disorder For Healthcare and Addiction Professionals, Policymakers, Patients, and Families