Talking About Addiction in Compassionate Ways

February 12, 2020. Article by: Government of B.C.

Words are powerful. Whether said out loud, typed in a text or on social media.

Sometimes typing a comment doesn’t feel as serious as when talking face-to-face with another person. A good rule of thumb is…

If you wouldn’t say it, don’t post it.

When it comes to talking about substance use and addiction, whether online or offline, using the right words can help save lives.

Words can reduce or increase stigma

Stigma – or shame and blame – is a big barrier to people reaching out for help when they are struggling with substance use challenges. When people don’t reach out for help, they are more likely to use substances without telling anybody, which puts them at a higher risk of having a fatal overdose.

Words like addict create stigma; addict labels people and ignores the full picture. But saying, person with a substance use disorder puts the person first. It acknowledges that a person’s condition, illness or behaviour is not their defining characteristic.  

Use these examples of non-stigmatizing language when talking about substance use:

  • Say person who uses drugs instead of drug user
  • Say person with a substance use disorder instead of junkie or addict
  • Say problematic substance use instead of drug abuse
  • Say person in recovery instead of former addict

Language changes because words are powerful

Language changes as our understanding of things grows. For example, health research has shown that substance use disorder is a medical issue, not a moral one. That’s why terms like addict have evolved to person with substance use disorder.

Understanding that language is always changing helps everyone talk about familiar subjects in a compassionate and respectful way.

When having conversations about substance use, addiction, or the overdose emergency, it can help to know the meaning behind words that are often used. This glossary explains words and phrases related to the overdose emergency to help you talk about this complex subject in a compassionate and evidence-based way.

Talk to someone if hurtful comments are affecting you

If hurtful comments online or offline are causing distress to you or someone you know, talk to someone you trust about what you’re experiencing or reach out to a mental health professional.