Does it Really Matter How We Talk About Addiction?

If you follow media coverage of addiction at all, you may have noticed a change in language over the past several years. Terms like “junkie,” “clean,” “drug abuser,” and others have gradually fallen out of use. You may still see “addict” from time to time, but even the use of that word is discouraged in most publications. It’s tempting to see advocacy of less morally loaded terms as a rather superficial issue in the face of an ever-increasing rate of fatal overdoses, but language actually plays an important role in helping people recover from addiction.

If you’ve been guilty of using some of those terms with negative connotations, don’t feel too bad. Studies have found that even medical professionals who specialize in addiction treatment use them surprisingly often. Studies have also found that when medical professionals use these terms, patients experience worse outcomes. The reason appears to be that once a doctor or therapist has characterized a patient as an “addict,” that person is easier to dismiss than help. The nature of addiction is that it’s hard to get rid of. Patience is absolutely necessary when trying to help someone with a substance use disorder and if your own language implies she can’t be helped, you are less likely to put in the effort. This is why it’s better to refer to a patient as “a person with a substance use disorder.” That recognizes the patient as a person, and one who needs help.

Dismissive language also adds to the stigma of substance use disorders. The stigma is one of the most common reasons people who need help are reluctant to seek it. Despite the progress we’ve made increasing awareness of addiction in recent years, the stigma is still powerful, especially for people who are already struggling with emotional pain and feelings of isolation. The fear of being labeled a “junkie” might keep her from reaching out. What’s more, most people with substance use disorders don’t fit the stereotype at all. Addiction is largely a hidden problem. You may have the tact to not refer to your friend in AA as a “drunk,” but you don’t always know who might be struggling with substance use. A careless word can hit hard.

Fortunately, awareness of how we talk about addiction is spreading. A recent survey found that about 60 percent of Americans now view addiction as a disease rather than a character flaw or a moral failing. That progress is perhaps largely due to the proliferation of 12-step programs around the world, as well as more recent awareness campaigns by the federal government and nonprofits. However, that still leaves a sizable minority who think of addiction in moral terms. Casual use of language that blames people with substance use disorders only reinforces that misconception.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction or mental illness, we can help. Recovery Ways is a premier drug and alcohol addiction treatment facility located in Salt Lake City, Utah. We have the resources to effectively treat a dual diagnosis. Our mission is to provide the most cost-effective, accessible substance abuse treatment to as many people as possible. Request information online or call us today at 1-888-986-7848.

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