Stigmatizing language regarding individuals with substance use disorders can often be a barrier for those who are seeking treatment. Certain labels can be charged with negative connotations that reduce a person to the disease, socially stigmatized condition, or circumstance they are struggling with. Using terms such as “addict,” “junkie,” “alcoholic,” or “abuser” can erase the human element behind the disease who has a history of love, hopes, and dreams, making them into a caricature of the drug or substance. This language may make it seem as though the person and the substance are one in the same, confusing “they have a problem” with “they are the problem.”

When we do not carefully choose our words to support people who require help, it can prevent them from wanting to receive it. Why would a person want to make their situation known when they may be harshly judged? It is essential to not only be careful about word choice but also to be careful about how the words are conveyed. Using compassion and empathy instead of annoyance and frustration can help a person feel more understood and accepted rather than judged or shunned. Words—no matter how seemingly small—can have an immense impact on a person.

“Person-First” Language  

“Person-first” language is a linguistic remedy that aims to avoid dehumanizing terms and instead promote dignity when describing people with disabilities, people who have been incarcerated, and people with mental health or substance use disorders. It prioritizes someone’s personhood and individuality above the condition you may be describing. An example of this would be saying “a person with a substance abuse disorder” rather than “substance abuser” or “alcoholic.” It is important to focus on using this linguistic approach when talking to those in treatment for several reasons. Here are some:

  • Word-choice matters. Certain words describing aspects of addiction can have a stigma attached to them, making people feel excluded, stereotyped, unwelcome, or unsafe when considering treatment. This can have a significant impact on a person’s wellbeing. To further understand this, the way we talk about other conditions such as cancer or diabetes may not conjure up the same implications when talking about the disease of addiction. 
  • Language is continually changing. As a society’s values change over time—hopefully for the better—so does the language that is considered appropriate or acceptable in specific settings. It can be challenging to keep up with any nuances or changes. However, we should make every effort to stay informed and up-to-date on words when having conversations about sensitive issues. 

According to an article provided by SAMHSA on substance use disorder treatment, in the United States, different perceptions about the nature of addiction and its causes have influenced treatment approaches. For example, the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914 made it illegal for physicians to treat people with alcohol or drug use disorders. The underlying assumption behind this act was that addiction was a moral failing. As time has progressed and so too have scientific studies furthering our understanding of the disease, so too should language. 

  • Mindset matters. The words we choose to use can shed light on our mindsets. Being empathetic and open-minded is essential for those that are providing care for people in treatment for addiction or mental health issues. It is also necessary to not let the fear of being “wrong ” prevent us from having important conversations. If someone offers a correction or suggestion, it is essential to not get defensive. Understanding the potential need for change can be an opportunity to learn and show that we care. 

Avoiding Certain Terms

Many people may have good intentions when having a conversation about addiction. They may not realize the terms they are using or how they frame questions can be adding to the stigmatization. It can be easy to become agitated when a person’s behavior is upsetting you. However, it is crucial to stay calm and use appropriate terms that do not make a person feel worse than they might already. Some terms that people may consider avoiding and replacing with more appropriate ones include:

  • Addict
  • User
  • Substance or drug abuser
  • Junkie
  • Being dirty vs. clean when referring to sobriety
  • Alcoholic
  • Drunk

While some people may introduce themselves during AA as an addict or an alcoholic, how people talk about themselves should not be something you determine. It is not up to an outsider to label a person or their experience.

Compassion and Empathy 

Using the right language is what allows compassion to come across to those who are being treated. The behaviors of a person with a currently active substance use disorder may make it difficult to be compassionate. However, in the article provided by SAMHSA on substance use treatment, “an empathetic counselor style predicts increased retention in treatment and reduced substance use across a wide range of clinical settings and types of clients.” A counselor who uses empathy instead of authority and power is critical to inspiring motivation to change. 

Language is an important element in helping change the stigmatization around addiction. The words we use often have underlying connotations that can either make a person feel excluded and stereotyped or included and individualized. Acknowledging the person and their individuality before their disorder, disease, condition, or circumstance is an important step in making them feel less defined or consumed by it. This is also critical to implement in treatment in order to show patients and clients compassion and respect. Often, the first step in seeking help is overcoming the intimidating barrier of stigmatization. No one should have to avoid getting help out of fear of being judged or looked down upon. At Alta Centers, we provide a safe community environment in an open and honest space to help those in treatment find a newfound sense of stability and belonging in the recovery process. Call us today at (888) 202-2583 for more information.  

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