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Words Matter: How to Talk About Addiction

Words are incredibly important when discussing addiction and mental health topics. Addiction is a disease that is difficult to overcome, but it does not have to define your life. You are more than your addiction, and one way you can express that is by changing how you talk about it. Alternatively, if you have a loved one suffering from addiction, support them by adopting the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)’s Preferred Language for Talking About Addiction.

Why Do Words Matter?

It is often unintentional, but when people use old terms related to addiction (such as “addict” or “junkie”), they can carry a negative meaning. This practice is also harmful to those who are trying to overcome their addiction, as feelings of judgment and stigma can be incredibly damaging to their mental health. Portraying someone who suffers from addiction in a negative or stigmatizing way may even cause them to avoid seeking treatment, so they do not have to face the stigma.

Stigma Surrounding Addiction

According to NIDA, stigma is defined as “discrimination against an identifiable group of people, a place, or a nation.” There is a great deal of harmful and inaccurate stigma-fueled beliefs out there that can make a person who suffers from addiction feel angry, hurt, or depressed. Sometimes, stigma pushes them to deny that they have a problem.

An essential part of treatment and recovery is realizing that you have a problem, so you can seek help for it. If you do not want to be a part of this stigmatized group, you may avoid seeking treatment altogether. It is important to end the stigma and treat addiction for what it is – an illness – in order to reach more people and help them through.

How to Start Changing Your Language

NIDA suggests a few ways to start changing your language to de-stigmatize addiction:

  • First, use first-person language. Make sure that you are addressing the person and not their illness. For example, instead of referring to them as “an addict,” you could say “a person with a substance use disorder.”
  • Let your loved one choose how they are described. There is no harm in asking them what terms they would like to use, especially if you are the one giving family, friends, and colleagues any updates on their treatment or recovery.

In general, try to use words that are not stigmatizing. Here are some examples with alternative words you can consider:

  • Instead of “addict,” say “person with a substance use disorder.” You may also refer to their specific substance (for example, “a person with an opioid disorder”). This helps remind everyone that it is a person who has an illness, and this illness does not define them.
  • When referencing a person with a substance use disorder, avoid using terms like junkie, addict, user, alcoholic, drunk, and others like that. These negative terms are well-known to carry a harmful stigma. Even if your loved one says it is okay to call them one of those names, it may still be best to avoid it.
  • Avoid calling someone in recovery a “former addict” or a “reformed addict.” They are a “person in recovery,” and they should not be identified by their addiction.
  • When someone tests positive on a drug screen, calling them “dirty” or saying that they “failed their drug test” are not medically accurate terms and may decrease a person’s willingness to get help or get tested in the future. It can also be severely discouraging to a person’s hope for change.
  • When speaking about addiction, the terms “habit” or “abuse” are out, and “substance use” or “drug addiction” are in. “Habit” implies that a person is choosing to do this and can choose to stop. Addiction is not that simple. Describing a substance use disorder as a habit makes this illness seem far less serious than it is. “Abuse” is a word with a highly negative connotation outside the parameters of substance use.
  • When speaking about children who are born with signs of prenatal exposure to substances, use these terms to describe them: a baby born to a parent who used drugs while pregnant, a baby with signs of withdrawal, a newborn exposed to substances, etc. It is not helpful to call a baby an “addicted baby” or any form of that term, which can suggest the baby is to blame.
  • When talking about treatment and recovery, use terms like “in recovery,” “in remission,” “abstinent from drugs or alcohol,” or “in treatment”. When discussing medications as part of treatment, you can refer to them as “pharmacotherapy” or “medications for substance use disorder”. Implying that pharmacotherapy or any type of therapy is replacing someone’s addiction is an inaccurate and potentially harmful way to describe treatment and recovery.

If you’re someone who struggles with a substance use disorder, there have likely been many times when you felt uncomfortable or judged due to the stigma of addiction. Always remember that addiction is an illness, and it should be talked about as an illness. At RECO Intensive, we understand how powerful the stigma of addiction can be. Sometimes, the negative words and phrases about addiction that we hear so frequently can even stop a person from pursuing treatment. RECO Intensive is here to provide a caring, supportive environment where you can receive treatment, recovery support, and other help to fight the illness of addiction. Our professional staff and experienced alumni can talk to you about your substance use disorder and discuss methods of treatment that will work for you. Don’t wait, call RECO Intensive today at (561) 464-6533 to learn more about your treatment and recovery options. We want to support you. Let’s get back to a brighter future. 

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