Words are powerful.
They can hurt. They can heal. They determine how we view our world and the people in it.
When it comes to the language of addiction, words matter. The words and phrases used today frame the way people think about substance use and recovery. They also have a great impact on how individuals think and feel about themselves and their chances of recovery. Inappropriate language, whether intentional or unintentional, promotes stigma and the feelings of disgrace and shame so often felt by those that suffer from substance use disorders.
Addiction Is a Disease and Should Not Define a Person
Medical professionals do not define a patient with asthma, diabetes, or cancer by their diagnosis or disease. Instead, they view them as a part of the entire person who is learning to survive with their illness. Addiction is a chronic disease and yet approximately 30 million Americans aged 12 and over are defined by this disease every day.
Unlike other diseases, where sufferers receive life-saving treatments, assistance, and support, those suffering from addiction are often viewed as moral failures or offenders. Oftentimes people believe that addiction is a choice and hold the abusers morally responsible. They blame them for their addiction and believe they deserve the stigma and harsh treatment they receive from society.
People with chronic illnesses are given medication to treat their health conditions. But the idea of using medication or Medically Assisted Treatment (MAT) to help those with addiction is often viewed by society as replacing one addiction with another or as a crutch. The terminology used for the medications for addiction should be the same as that used for other chronic diseases, none of which are called MAT.
Simple Changes Make a Big Difference
Simple changes must be made to rid society of the stigma and discrimination attached to a substance use disorder. The language used by medical professionals and clinicians needs to promote access to care and improved treatment.
For this to occur, language must:
- Be people-first language that respects the dignity and worth of all people
- Be medically accurate, focusing on the medical nature of the SUD and its treatment
- Focus on the person rather than the disorder
- Promote the process of recovery
- Avoid words, slang, and idioms that form images of negative biases and stereotypes such as addict, wrestling with demons, pothead, strung out, speedball, and clean/dirty urine
Using the Term Substance Use Disorder
In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) replaced the former categories of substance dependence and abuse with the term Substance Use Disorder (SUD).
Using Person-First Language
It is not about being polite, politically correct, or sensitive. Person-first language is a proven method that reduces stigma and helps provide quality care and treatment. This type of language does not define a person based on their medical disorder. It is clinical, non-judgmental, and neutral.
The following are examples of person-first language:
- A person with a substance use disorder, instead of an addict
- A person with an alcohol use disorder, instead of an alcoholic
- People who use drugs for non-medical reasons, instead of recreational drug users
- Testing positive for substance use, instead of a dirty screen
- Compulsive or regular substance use, instead of drug habit
Avoiding Stigmatizing Words
To begin to change the negative stereotype associated with addiction, language choices must not be stigmatizing. Examples include:
- Change demeaning terms such as addict, junkie, and abuser to person in active addiction or person with a substance misuse disorder.
- Change words that refer to an active addiction as a habit or drug habit to substance use disorder or active addiction. Habit or drug habit takes away the medical nature of the illness and makes it seem like it is a choice that can be stopped by willpower.
- Change the word abuse to misuse, harmful use, problem use, or inappropriate use. The word abuse blames the illness solely on the individual and negates that it is a medical condition.
Once the words are changed and stigma is gone, it will be much easier for patients to regain their self-esteem. Words hurt. The way you speak to a person with addiction matters.
You Are Not Alone
If you are thinking of seeking treatment for a substance use disorder for yourself or a loved one, you are not alone. The professionals at English Mountain Recovery Center, located in the beautiful Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, are there to answer your questions about residential treatment and help you begin your journey toward recovery.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse – What Does It Mean When We Call Addiction a Brain Disorder?
- ResearchGate – Confronting Inadvertent Stigma and Pejorative Language in Addiction Scholarship: A Recognition and Response
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration – Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health
- The White House: Executive Office of the President – Changing Federal Terminology Regarding Substance Use and Substance Use Disorders