In recent years, the recovery advocacy and scientific communities have prompted the public to consider how they perceive of substance use disorders (SUDs) and the individuals who have a SUD. SUDs are medical illnesses. However, it is still common for SUDs to be characterized as a moral failing or lack of willpower and for disparaging words to be used in describing SUDs and the individuals suffering from them.
Research has shown that the words we use to describe SUD and recovery have a significant impact on those struggling and how they are treated.
When words are used inappropriately to describe individuals with a SUD, it not only negatively distorts societal perceptions of their illness but also feeds into the stigma that can prevent individuals from seeking help. In 2014, over 22 percent of individuals with a SUD did not seek out treatment because they felt that it would have a negative impact on their employment or the way in which their neighbors and community would view them. The constant inundation of negative terminology surrounding SUDs in our own communities, as well as among health professionals, educators, policymakers, and in the media reinforces these barriers that prevent individuals from seeking help.
We can, and must, do better when talking to and about our neighbors, friends, and loved ones who have a SUD or are in recovery. We need to align the way in which we speak with the prevailing research on stigma and language. For example, when referring to people who have a SUD (or any medical illness), it is best to use person-first language — emphasizing the person before the disorder (“a person with a substance use disorder”). Doing so restores and empowers the humanity of individuals, rather than defining them by their illness.
Taking time to reflect on the words we use every day is important for all of us. Abandoning words that may reinforce shame, prejudice, and discrimination while lifting up those that can empower and instill hope can help us make significant strides toward removing a major barrier to treatment access and promote a more accurate concept of the illness for society as a whole.
*Note: Language use, as described here, is meant as the language used to describe, identify, or contextualize SUD and recovery in public or in settings such as legislative hearings. The use of any words or labels, regardless of any negative or positive connotation, in private settings (e.g. mutual aid 12-step meetings) should remain a personal decision for all individuals.
Podcast: “Why Language Matters When it Comes to Addiction” (WNYC)
“Addiction-ary” (Recovery Research Institute)
Changing the Narrative (Health in Justice Action Lab, Northeastern University School of Law)