Why Words Matter When We Talk About Addiction

February 20, 2018. Article by: Toward the Heart

Words and language matter – especially for people who use substances. The terms we use to describe people who use drugs and the conditions associated with drug use can play either a supportive role in overdose prevention, or lead to guilt and isolation among people who use drugs. Studies show that negative language discredits and discriminates, making people feel isolated and more likely to use drugs alone.  When a person uses alone they are less likely to access lifesaving programs and services.

Using non-stigmatizing language can make a positive difference in difficult conversations.  

Let's change the conversation about addiction. Point focus on the medical aspects of the disease. Encourage people who use drugs to seek the help and support they need and deserve.

Treating people who use substances with respect improves health outcomes and helps save lives.

In a report available on TowardTheHeart.com, researchers outline the stigmatizing language often used to describe substance use, dependence and/or addiction. It highlights the impact this language can have on people who use drugs.  The report also offers tips and best practices for changing the overdose conversation:

  • Focus on people-first language. This means referring to a person before describing their behaviour or condition. This is important because it acknowledges that a person’s condition, illness or behaviour is not that person’s defining characteristic.  “Person with a cocaine-use disorder” instead of “cocaine user” or “addict.”
     
  • Use language that reflects the medical nature of substance use disorders. There are many factors contributing to drug addiction, ranging from personal to social, environmental and political. Avoid terms that reinforce a belief that addiction is a failure of morals or personality, rather than a medical issue.  “Addictive disease” and “substance use disorder” instead of “abuser” or “junkie.”
     
  • Use language that promotes recovery. Healthcare professionals should use language that conveys optimism, supports recovery and respects the person’s right to make their own decisions.  “Opted not to” and “not in agreement with the treatment plan” instead of “unmotivated” or “non-compliant.”
     
  • Avoid slang and idioms. Slang terms and idioms have negative connotations and a significant level of stigma attached to them. “Positive” or “negative” when referring to drug tests, instead of “dirty” or “clean.

What is Stigma?

Stigma is defined as “an attribute or quality which ‘significantly discredits’ an individual in the eyes of others”.

Substance use disorders are more highly stigmatised than other health conditions.

Reframing the language around drug use shifts the focus of drug addiction from being a moral, social or criminal issue to a medical issue, which deserves treatment.

Stigma toward people who use drugs can result in discrimination, such as difficulty in obtaining employment, reduced access to housing, or poor support for treatment.

People with substance use issues may also practice self-stigma – feelings of shame and guilt that make them less likely to seek employment, and more likely to have difficulties developing intimate relationships, avoid treatment and use drugs alone.