Words Can Hurt: Addiction Stigma Language to Watch For

stigma of addiction

“What we speak becomes the house we live in,” the Persian poet Hafiz once said. But when it comes to the recovery and treatment of addiction, could words that promote stigma about addiction, be tearing down houses instead?

Some advocates in the field are urging that we change the way we discuss drug addiction in everyday conversation. Different words, ones that show compassion and respect, are needed to reshape talks that can bring about a greater understanding of what addiction really is and what recovery means.

“Stigma remains the biggest barrier to addiction treatment faced by patients,” writes the National Alliance of Advocates for Buprenorphine Treatment (NAABT) on its website. “The terminology used to describe addiction has contributed to the stigma.”

Why the Language Needs to Change

Stigmatizing language during discussions about addiction, advocates say, discourage people who need treatment from seeking it. Among the reasons given for why the language needs to change are:

  • It encourages others to judge people or make them feel they should be ashamed or guilty about their substance abuse issues.
  • It also encourages rejection, discrimination, and incarceration of people who have substance abuse or addiction struggles.
  • It overshadows the progress the person in recovery has made.
  • It gives the impression that the person in recovery is helpless or hopeless.

The negative perception about drug addiction is real. Research conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in 2014 offers insight into how stigma shapes the public’s views of substance abuse and addiction. According to the study, people in addictive addiction are more likely to be seen unfavorably than people who have mental-health disorders. According to researchers, their condition is considered a “moral failing.”

In recent years, it has become more socially acceptable to talk publicly about one’s struggles with mental illness. But with addiction, the feeling is that the addict is a bad or weak person, especially because much [of] drug use is illegal,” said study leader Colleen L. Barry, Ph.D., MPP, an associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in a press release about the study.

Also, according to the study’s press release, researchers found respondents had higher levels of public opposition to policies that might help drug addicts in their recovery.

How the general population sees addiction, treatment and recovery can affect how others see the condition, how the disease is treated and if those who are struggling with addictive disorders get the help they need, some say.

Understanding Addiction Good Place to Start

Perhaps before the language can change, the understanding of what addiction needs to happen first. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.

It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain; they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long-lasting and can lead to many harmful, often self-destructive, behaviors.”

Further, “Addiction occurs when a person cannot control the impulse to use drugs even when there are negative consequences—the defining characteristic of addiction,” NIDA says.

What Are Some Terms of Addiction Stigma?

Here are some popular terms that advocates and others say promote addiction stigma:

Abuse/Abuser. The use of “abuse” or “abuser” may cast a person in addiction in a much harsher light than what’s necessary or fair. According to Sarah Wakeman, MD, FASAM, Medical Director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Substance Use Disorder Initiative, who wrote an article for the Harvard Health Blog, these terms have “been shown to increase stigma among highly trained clinicians, who recommend more punitive treatment when an individual is described that way.” She recommends describing patients as having a substance use disorder so their illness is the focus and that the condition does not define them.

Addict. Calling someone an addict encourages unfavorable treatment of people struggling with substance abuse issues, some observers say. The label can be perceived as negative and casts the person into a role of being unwilling to help themselves out of addiction. The term “addiction,” however, is OK to use, according to the NAABT.

Clean (as in getting clean, staying clean). This term, some say, implies that a person in active addiction is dirty or impure, which could be seen as stigmatizing. It does depend on whom you ask, however, because some people in recovery may be neutral to the term. Some may see it as a term of accomplishment for staying true to their commitment to sobriety.

Habit (as in drug habit). According to the NAABT, labeling an addictive disorder a habit rejects the medical aspect of the condition and also implies that the issue is one of willpower when that is not necessarily the case. The organization suggests using the terms “substance misuse disorder, alcohol and drug disorder, alcohol and drug diseases, or addictive addiction” instead.

Junkie. This term implies that a person who uses drugs is useless or worthless, which isn’t true, doesn’t help them or encourage real understanding of what addiction is and why that person is struggling with it. Isabella, a New Jersey woman, told writer Alicia Cook for her Huffington Post article, “Stop Saying ‘They’re Just Junkies”: “Drug addiction takes everything from you. My pride and my self-confidence are gone. So, when I hear the word ‘junkie,’ I feel even more worthless. Not to mention, the person using that word doesn’t know me or my story; I never did anything personally to hurt them, and they still use that word to hurt me.” Many agree it’s best to avoid this term along with many others, such as “dope fiend,” “druggie,” “crackhead,” “meth head,” “alkie,” “stoner,” and “drunk.”

Avoid Addiction Stigma with People-First Language

Taking care to use people-first language will help everyone avoid language that promotes addiction stigma.One way to avoid the use of stigmatizing language is to practice people-first language, an approach that emphasizes the person over their disability or their condition. For example, instead of saying a person is a “heroin addict,” one could say “a person with a heroin addiction.”

Keep in mind that everyone is an individual and has different sensitivities when it comes to addiction stigma language. When it comes to language, what might offend one person may not affect the next person at all. You can always talk with a person in recovery about their experiences with substance abuse or addiction and ask them if they would prefer that you use a certain term and what that term is. Some people may not prefer any term at all.

Here at Recovery Hub, we understand addiction stigma and how it can affect people who want treatment, and how hard it can be to abstain from drugs in the face of an addiction problem. There is no need to take this challenge on your own. Our addiction specialists are standing by to guide you or a loved one to a healthier and happier way of life free of drugs. For help today, call our 24-7 hotline at (844) 318-7500.

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