Words to Avoid When Talking About Addiction

There are some common words that we all associate with addiction. Whether you have a connection to addiction or not, you probably recognize words like junkie, clean, dirty, sober, abuse and addict. Words like junkie and dirty carry obviously derogatory connotations and can be stigmatizing, but experts say that even some of the other common terms can add to the stigma that addiction carries. Why and how should we change the language of addiction?

What’s Wrong With Addiction Language?

Addiction is a disease that has long been stigmatized. Although researchers and other experts have clarified and proven that it is a real disease and a chronic medical illness, most people still view it as a weakness. To be an addict is to carry the stigma of being someone who cannot control her impulses, who can’t get her life together and who is morally weaker than non-addicts.

Language is an important tool for communication. Without realizing it, we express feelings, ideas and opinions based on the words we choose to use in various situations. Many of the words we use to describe addiction and addicts, the experts tell us, only add to stereotypes and stigma. For example, using words like clean and dirty to describe an addict or a failed urine sample strongly imply a moral viewpoint. The addict who has been successful at quitting is clean, or good. The addict failing the drug test is dirty, or bad.

Even more benign terms can insert moral judgment. Calling an addiction a habit, for instance, implies that the drug user just has a problem with willpower. It neglects the medical nature of addiction. The term abuse, which is used in clinical settings, can also negate the medical aspect of addiction. It puts the blame squarely on the person with the addiction.

Changing Addiction Language

Experts have made a call to all addiction professionals to change the language used to describe addiction and people addicted to drugs or alcohol. They hope to not only reduce stigma, but also to bring commonality to the discussion so that all professionals are using the same language. These professionals are calling for language that is people-first. That means using terms that focus on the patient and less on the disease. For instance, calling someone a heroin addict carries strong moralizing implications. If we instead referred to that patient as a person with a heroin addiction, it implies that the patient is foremost a person with a medical condition.

They also hope to see addiction language become more medicalized. As we learn more about addiction as a disease of the brain, it becomes more important to use terminology that is medical in nature. This language will help bring about a cultural shift away from stigma. New language should also promote recovery and the process of healing from the disease and should avoid slang and derogatory terms that maintain negative stereotypes about addiction and addicts.

Language is a powerful force. Throughout history it has been used to keep people down, to lift people up, to spread messages, to communicate ideas and to spread propaganda. Most people do not use the common terminology of addiction to intentionally hurt anyone, but the words do add to the stigma of the disease. If everyone involved can start to change the way they talk about addiction, we may begin to see a shift in thinking about addiction and those struggling with the disease.

There is still hope.

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