How to Change the Language of Addiction


Words matter. Every day, health care professionals use routine vocabulary related to work. It forms medical judgments. When the rest of society adopt these terms, they accept the attitudes as well. It’s important for clinicians to use vocabulary that precisely reflects science, endorses evidence-based treatment, and shows respect for patients. It’s especially recommended for doctors who treat vulnerable patients, such as those who suffer from substance abuse.

Addiction Is a Disease, Not a Feature of Character

Nearly 21 million Americans aged 12 and older are grappling with a substance use disorder (SUD). Unfortunately, only 1 out of 10 people with this health condition get treatment. The No. 1 reason why they don’t seek help is the stigma. Users don’t want to recognize a problem because they don’t want their family, friends, neighbors, and others to find out about it. They are afraid of their reaction.

In this situation, using a national drug abuse hotline numbers: free addiction help 24/7 is one of the best decisions. Consultants speak with the callers in a supportive, non-judgmental tone. An addiction helpline serves as a safe, free, and confidential outlet for someone who is not ready to ask for help or talk about their problem in public.

We don’t define someone with diabetes, tuberculosis, or cancer as a weak, irresponsible person who himself is to blame for the illness. But when it comes to alcohol and drug addiction, its victims are often viewed as people of low moral values or offenders. This is an outdated stereotype we need to change.

Our language partly contributes to the social stigma surrounding addiction. A lot of derogatory and stigmatizing words and phrases were introduced throughout the “War on Drugs”. While the campaign is not considered effective in reducing the misuse, it has been extra effective in creating the stigma and demonizing drugs and those who use them.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was formed in 1935, and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) – in 1953. Back then, the terms “alcoholic”, “addict”, and “abuse,” have been commonly used in hospitals. Society, in general, used labels as “junkie” and “drunk” with little to no regard to rudeness.

Today, health officials understand that words can have a huge impact on the quality of treatment people receive the way medical professionals see and treat patients with addiction.

In 2016, the Office of National Drug Control Policy issued a memorandum with a recommendation to federal agencies on referring substance use. One of the documents was entitled “Changing the Language of Addiction”. It provided a proper glossary that can be used when discussing substance use and SUDs.

According to the document, the terminology must be changed to reflect today’s deeper understanding of addiction and its treatment. The aim is to eliminate the slang terms and replace them with either medical terms or appropriate respectful alternatives. Fortunately, this task is quite doable.

What Words Should You Use?

Replacement of some medical terms with more neutral and tolerant ones can change the stigma and discrimination associated with alcohol- and drug-addicted people. It will benefit everyone.

Patients will regain their self-esteem. They will be more willing to call rehab and communicate with health care professionals.

Doctors will be able to treat without the disapproval of their peers. Politicians will provide more funding. And the public will start to understand that addiction is a medical issue, not a moral failing.

The language used by medical professionals, clinicians, and operators of drug and alcohol hotlines must not carry judgment and convey unsympathetic and punitive attitudes. There are three principles to stick to:

  • Use medically accurate words that focus on the medical aspect of the SUD and its treatment.

In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association offered a new term “substance use disorder” instead of the previous “substance abuse and addiction”.

  • Use people-first language that conveys respect to the patients’ dignity rather than pejorative (negative) connotations.

Person-first language is not about politeness, political correctness, or sensitivity. It’s a proven method that helps to reduce stigma and give quality care and treatment. This type of language doesn’t define a patient based on their health condition. It’s professional and clean of moral judgments.

Here are several examples of person-first language:

  • A person with a SUD (or specifically to the drug of choice: alcohol use disorder, opioid use disorder, etc.) instead of an addict, abuser, alcoholic, druggie, etc.
  • Testing positive or negative for substance use instead of “clean” or “dirty” which suggests a flaw in a person’s character.
  • Compulsive or regular substance use instead of alcohol/drug habit which takes away the medical side of the illness and makes it seem like quitting depends just on a person’s willpower.
  • Avoid rude words, slang, and idioms that portray patients in a negative light.

For example:

  • Use terms “a person in active addiction” or “person with a substance misuse disorder” instead of an addict, junkie, pothead, alky, and abuser. These words are demeaning as they label a patient by his/her illness.
  • Change the word “abuse” to the following alternatives: misuse, harmful use, and problem use. The use of words “abuse” and “abuser” has been shown to increase stigma even among highly trained clinicians. These words deny the fact that an addictive disorder is a medical condition. They put the blame on the individual, not taking into account genetic and environmental factors.

Of course, changing the language you have used for years is a difficult task. You will need some time and a conscious effort to adapt to a new vocabulary. You may make mistakes all the time, falling back into a kind of habitual term.

If you have some questions on substance use disorder, call an addiction recovery hotline to get a consultation. You’ll be guided on what to do in case you need help or want to support your addicted beloved ones. Don’t procrastinate with seeking treatment.

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