As addiction continues to be a growing epidemic in our country, it is important that we learn more about how to offer help and hope to the millions of people who are affected, both directly and indirectly. One of the most simple, yet powerful, ways people can help is by carefully choosing words around the subject of addiction that display a non-judgmental interpretation.
When we look at addiction from a scientific viewpoint, the research suggests a person suffering from a substance use disorder is in fact dealing with a chronic brain disorder.
Studies have found that a person using an addictive substance will undergo drastic changes in his or her brain functions, which results in an inadvertently reduced ability to control usage. Not only that, but when a substance is repeatedly used over time, this also interferes with the brain’s natural chemistry. In turn, this affects the neurotransmitters, thus creating a neurobiological disorder.
Therefore, this type of chronic brain disorder should be be viewed and treated just as we do mental health disorders or other medical conditions. Rewriting the lexicon for addiction, as we have done for mental health, will help us move away from language that suggests blame or character defect and replaces it with words that are free of judgment. This shift will ultimately encourage more people to get treatment.
Why Words Matter
The words we use around addiction can either support a path to recovery or dissuade it. Poor terminology can elicit a sense of hopelessness, and that’s why the words we choose to use can either offer hope or take it away.
The problem with outdated vocabulary used in association with addiction is that it often suggests problems that arise with substance use are merely a byproduct of moral failing or lack of willpower. Words that shame, blame or pass judgment on a person — as if they lack character or choose to have a substance use disorder — aren’t helpful and serve no purpose in our fight against addiction.
Just as we no longer use hurtful words like “cripple,” “retard” or “insane asylum” related to mental health issues, we need also be mindful of the words we use to describe a person with a substance use disorder.
Scientific journals and professional associations have carefully crafted language around health conditions and disabilities to suggest a more neutral connotation than a negative one, which separates the person from his or her diagnosis. Language used to describe substance use disorders can and should move in this direction as well.
Dr. John Kelly of the Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital conducted a study with trained clinicians. In the study, Dr. Kelly gave the clinicians almost identical substance use disorder cases.
The only piece of information he changed was the language used to describe the patient: in one case he used “substance abuser” and in the other he used “person with a substance abuse disorder.” The findings showed that the case using “substance abuser” produced a more disciplinary response from the clinicians.1
What Is the Proper Language of Addiction?
Dr. Kelly’s study demonstrates that the terms used to talk about addiction can negatively affect addicted individuals and, over time, can hurt the cultural views toward addiction. Therefore, certain terminology perpetuates the stigma around addiction and only serves to create more misconception about substance use disorders.
Words such as “addict,” “junkie,” “crack head” or “druggie” display judgment, shame and blame. Even the words “abuse” or “habit” can suggest choice over the reality of the disease and need for medical treatment.
In an effort to standardize the national communication practices surrounding addiction, the Office of National Drug Control Policy outlined language that’s more sensitive to people with addiction and helpful toward the overall cultural tone.
- Substance use disorder
- Person with substance use disorder
- Person in recovery
- Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)
Why Language Also Affects Treatment
According to an interview with Michael Botticelli, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, nearly 21 million Americans have a substance use disorder, and sadly a very small percentage (only about 10 percent of those people) actually seek treatment. As Botticelli says, “When you look at the reasons that people cite of why they don’t seek treatment, the number one answer that comes up for many people is stigma.”3
Instead of seeing themselves as sick, people who struggle with addiction often just see themselves as bad people, which causes them to feel ashamed, embarrassed and ostracized.
“By using accurate, non-stigmatizing language, we can help break the stigma surrounding this disease so people can more easily access treatment, reach recovery and live healthier lives,” Botticelli says.2
By Carly Benson
1 Freyer, Felice J. “Language of Addiction Itself Can Hurt, Advocates Say.” Boston Globe, February 4, 2016.
2 “Changing the Language of Addiction.” The White House: President Barack Obama, January 13, 2017.
3 “How Changing the Language of Addiction Affects Policy and Treatment.” WBUR, August 2, 2017.