Language Matters

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. While evidence shows that SUDs are medical illnesses, it is still too common for SUDs to be characterized as a moral failing or due to lack of willpower. Disparaging words are unfortunately still used to describe SUDs and the individuals suffering from them.[1]

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.[2] The constant inundation of negative terminology surrounding SUDs in our own communities, as well as among health professionals, educators, policymakers, and the media reinforces these barriers that prevent individuals from seeking help.

Research suggests that aligning our language to describe addiction with the prevailing research improved outcomes for the individuals.

For example, when referring to people who have a SUD (or any medical illness), it’s best to use person-first language — emphasizing the person before the disorder (“a person with a substance use disorder”), which restores and empowers the humanity of individuals, rather than defining them by their illness.

Persons with a Substance Use Disorder

Family members can remove words that may reinforce shame, prejudice, and discrimination from their vocabularies and replace them with more compassionate and accurate language.

An excerpt from Navigating Addiction and Treatment: A Guide for Families, Addiction Policy Forum, 2020.

A Note From Addiction Policy Forum

Substance use disorders get worse over time. The earlier treatment starts the better the chances for long-term recovery. Many families are wrongly told to “wait for rock bottom” and that their loved one needs to feel ready to seek treatment in order for it to work. The idea that we should wait for the disease to get worse before seeking treatment is dangerous. Imagine if we waited until stage 4 to treat cancer. Decades of research has proven that the earlier someone is treated, the better their outcomes—and that treatment works just as well for patients who are compelled to start treatment by outside forces as it does for those who are self-motivated to enter treatment.

Help is Here

If you have questions or need to speak with someone for support, call or text (833) 301-4357 today. Our staff of trained counselors at Addiction Policy Forum provides free, confidential support to anyone in need of help with a Substance Use Disorder issue, including patients, families and healthcare providers.

Addiction A - Z Topics

Navigating Addiction

Addiction Basics

Starting the Conversation

Evidence-Based Treatment

Recovery Support

Caregiver Self Care


Video Explainers


1) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018). The Power of Perceptions and Understanding: Changing How We Deliver Treatment and Recovery Services. Retrieved from

2) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Se