Why “Words Matter” with substance use and addiction
Words have a powerful impact on the way we see the world, and can perpetuate the stigma of substance use. The words we use can have a negative impact, even if we have no intention of causing harm.
What is stigma? Stigma marks a person as different or damaged; it devalues and can dehumanize a person who has a substance use or other socially-discredited health disorder. Language can affect how the public thinks about substance use and recovery. Research demonstrates that the use of certain words and terminology can create biases that influence how society treats people and groups.
Words can also have an impact on the individual who uses substances, impacting how people think about themselves, and about their ability to make changes in their lives, including whether or not to seek health care. While words can cause and perpetuate stigma, they also have the power to undo stigma. Using the “language of recovery” can inspire hope and promote recovery.
The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction changed its name this year, eliminating the term “Substance Abuse”. This is an acknowledgement that words do, indeed, matter. Recognizing that words matter is sometimes disparagingly called “political correctness.” Those hurt by stigmatizing language are sometimes dismissed as “overly sensitive”. These terms ignore the power and the negative impact that words can have.
Here are some ways to avoid using words that stigmatize substance use and addiction:
1. Use “people-first language.” For instance, refer to a “person who uses substances”, or a “person who has a substance use disorder”; and not a “drug user”, “addict” or “alcoholic”. This is more neutral language that helps to maintain the individuality of the person.
2. Refer to “substance use” rather than “substance abuse”. “Abuse” or “abuser” has been shown to contribute to negative judgments about people with substance use disorders, and may suggest that people should be punished rather than receive treatment.
3. Choose to recognize that substance use disorders are health disorders. They are not the result of any kind of character flaw or lack of personal willpower. In fact, substance use disorders are the second most common mental health disorder.
4. Choose to refer to “drug poisoning” rather than a “drug overdose” as the latter perpetuates the myth that a person has “brought this on themselves”.
5. Referring to a “drug habit,” or “drug of choice” implies that the person can simply choose to stop. Refer instead to “the substance a person is using”.
6. Choose language that promotes the recovery process. This means not describing a person as being “clean” or “dirty” but rather as “not currently using substances”. Also, refer to a person who is not using substances, or is reducing use, as being “in recovery”.
7. Avoid perpetuating negative stereotypes and biases through the use of slang and pejorative names.
8. The recommended use of non-stigmatizing language also applies when describing a person with other mental health problems and illnesses.