Language has incredible power to shape our identities for good, but it also can be harmful. While our words can be used to express love and support, they also can add to the stigma of addiction and cause pain—even if we don’t mean to do so.
Talking about mental health problems and substance abuse can be challenging enough, but it’s important to also talk about how we talk about them, and how we can improve. Thoughtless words and even clinically accepted phrasing can serve to increase the stigma people living with an addiction feel, and it can harm their recovery or even prevent them from seeking help.
Let’s take a closer look at the way language can be used to help and how it can harm those in recovery.
The Stigma of Addiction
Addict. Junkie. Criminal. Substance abuser. Deadbeat. These words are often closely tied in the public consciousness and the negative connotations they invoke is stigma—or social rejection of those who are facing a struggle with substance abuse.
Addiction is a complex disease with psychological and physiological effects. People who struggle with addiction are multi-faceted human beings with lives and experiences of their own—not caricatures of stereotypes. They have their own traumas and their own stories, as well as their own experiences with substance abuse.
The way we talk about them, though, can reinforce negative stereotypes and the idea that addiction is a moral failing, a choice, a criminal act, or other harmful ideas. What’s worse—the thought of being perceived as a stereotypical addict can prevent people from seeking out the help they need to recover.
How Language Shapes the Conversation Around Addiction and Recovery
It is important to remember that clinical language is not infallible and still can contribute to stigma. Many now-derogatory terms began as clinical language used to describe conditions. While describing someone as an addict may be semantically correct, it can also cause discomfort for the person in question.
Language has the power to change our perception. Terms such as “addict” and “drug abuser” often place the blame of the issue onto the person affected by it, rather than treating them as a victim of an awful disease. This language inserts morality into the issue.
Kenneth Tupper, of the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use, sums the idea up very well:
The term ‘addict’ represents people who have lost control, who are morally blameworthy for the problems they are suffering from … and perhaps don’t deserve the full compassion of our health-care system. Child abuse, spousal abuse, animal abuse, elder abuse—in each case the thing in front of the word abuse is who or what is being harmed. But when it comes to drug abuse, who or what is being harmed? Certainly not the drugs. They are inanimate objects.
By shifting the way we talk about substance abuse to focus on the person being harmed by addiction, we can reduce stigma and reframe the conversation about addiction in a way that supports the people who are struggling with an addiction.
Our language needs to be evaluated through the lens of how those affected by our language feel about the way they are discussed, not what is convenient.
What Language Supports People in Recovery and Reduces Stigma?
Now that we understand how our language can harm those who are vulnerable, it’s time to talk about how our language can be used to help them.
Putting a focus on how drugs affect people can help us shift the conversation to benefit everyone. Rather than referring to people living with a substance abuse disorder as an addict or drug abuser, refer to them as a person who uses drugs. They’re not “getting clean.” They’re a person who is in recovery. They are not abusing drugs. They are using drugs. They are not a moral failure. They are a human being who is affected by a disease, and deserving of compassion, support, and care, whether they are seeking treatment or not.
Addressing drug use as a disease to be treated, and not a problem to be shunned or a criminal act can dramatically reduce the harm caused by drug addiction. Always put the person first when talking about addiction and be mindful of the way addiction affects their lives.
Why We Need to Change the Conversation Surrounding Addiction
Stigma kills. When people who need help treating a condition, whether it is a substance abuse disorder, mental illness, feel that they will be judged or treated poorly for their condition, they may feel that there is no help for them. Physical conditions, such as cancer and broken bones, aren’t stigmatized, and patients can freely seek treatment. People who want to stop using drugs, however, may not feel safe getting equal treatment.
Quality of care is another reason to work on changing the way we talk about substance abuse disorders. Medical professionals, addiction treatment counselors, and mental health clinicians are only human. They work hard to address their own biases and ensure that they can provide care and support equally and fairly to every patient.
By changing the way we, as a society, talk about addiction, we can ensure that healthcare professionals address stigma and provide quality care, whether it is related to treating a substance abuse disorder, or simply providing health care to a person who uses drugs.
Addiction is not a choice. Relapsing is not failure. Treating people who are struggling day to day with addiction or recovery as morally bad people is a failure on our part. Instead, let’s make the changes we need to make to show them that we understand their pain and we’re at their side, ready to help them recover, no matter how difficult it may be.
Getting Help When You Need It
If you or a loved one is facing the challenges of addiction, our team is ready to help. We believe in providing customized, compassionate care to every client, and our Santa Barbara addiction treatment team will work with you to create a treatment plan that is perfect for your personal needs.
Let’s talk about how to start recovery. Contact our team today.