Words Matter: Reduce Stigma to Save Lives


Words Matter: Reduce Stigma to Save Lives   

Two people talking

Addictions – their treatment – are highly stigmatized. This stigma often stems from the belief that an addiction is somehow a moral failing, which discourages people from seeking help. Sadly, substance use disorders are treatable chronic diseases – but societal misconceptions and biases can be barriers to seeking treatment. 

Whether or not we’re aware of these biases, using stigmatized language or practices can negatively impact those around us and greatly diminish their willingness to seek treatment. In fact, it is estimated that for every one overdose, there were at least seven opportunities to intervene. 

Everyone can be a part of the solution, but using words that de-stigmatize substance use disorder must be intentional. Using medically accurate language that recognizes substance use disorder as a disease rather than a moral failing will help to create a stigma-free environment that prioritizes treatment and recovery.   

People First Language  

People-first language prioritizes the individual or “personhood” of every person over descriptive social identities and stigmatizing language. It also reinforces that a person is NOT their disease. For example:

  • Person with diabetes
  • Person with Alzheimer's disease
  • Person with a substance use disorder

Other Strategies  

Similarly, labels such as user, alcoholic, drunk, or junkie are not appropriate.

Instead of:Use...Because...
• Addict 
• User 
• Substance or drug abuser 
• Junkie   

• Alcoholic 
• Drunk   

• Former addict 
• Reformed addict
• Person with substance use disorder 
• Person with opioid user disorder (OUD) or person with opioid addiction [when substance in use is opioids] 
• Patient 

• Person with alcohol use disorder 
• Person who misuses alcohol/engages in unhealthy/hazardous alcohol use 

• Person in recovery or long-term recovery 
• Person who previously used drugs
• Person-first language
• The changes shows the person "has" a problem, rather than "is" the problem
• The terms avoid eliciting negative associations, punitive attitudes, and individual blame
• Habit• Substance use disorder 
• Drug addiction
• Inaccurately implies that a person is choosing to use substances or can choose to stop. 
• "Habit" may undermine the seriousness of the addiction.

Source: Words Mater—Terms to Use and Avoid When Talking About Addiction

Inspiring Hope

We all know someone who is impacted by substance use disorder. But as a society, we’re uncomfortable discussing what is oftentimes still seen as taboo. It’s this very silence that can leave loved ones who struggle with substance use disorder feeling alone, helpless – and above all – ashamed of their addiction. 

Hearing their experiences not only provides a safe, cathartic space for those seeking recovery, but helps shed light for those of us who don’t fully understand the nature of substance use disorder.