We’ve come a long way in understanding addiction, but unfortunately our language doesn’t always keep up. We now know that addiction has a large genetic component and that your risk of addiction has a lot to do with social factors, trauma, and mental health. Despite this, much of our language about addiction remains accusative and doesn’t acknowledge the complexity of our current understanding. Studies have shown that how we use language can actually have a negative impact on people struggling with addiction. Here’s how.
Language affects the quality of care.
You might expect that the people who know most about addiction, including its biological basis and its social risk factors, would be would be less prone to negatively judge people struggling with addiction. However, two studies found that medical professionals treated patients differently, depending on whether the patient was described as a “substance abuser” or as “having a substance use disorder.” In a large sample of mental health and addiction clinicians, describing someone as a “substance abuser” caused clinicians to have a more negative view of the patient and to prescribe more punitive measures than those prescribed for patients “having a substance use disorder.” A follow-up study found clinicians believed “substance abusers” were more socially threatening and less likely to benefit from treatment. It also matters how we describe addiction treatment. For example, some people, including President Trump’s former secretary of Health and Human Services, have described medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, as “replacing one addiction with another.” However, for many people struggling with opioid addiction, treatment that includes MAT is the fastest, most effective way to get their lives back on track. Disparaging it at just another addiction makes no more sense than saying people with diabetes are addicted to insulin.
Language affects the likelihood someone will get treatment.
People who know they need help but refuse to get it often cite the stigma of addiction as one of the biggest barriers. No one wants to be labeled an “addict,” a “drunk,” or a “junkie.” These labels dehumanize and make you feel like your addiction is your own fault. They contribute to a sense of shame and fear of asking for help.
Language affects public attitudes toward addiction.
Public attitudes toward addiction play a big part in whether people struggling with addiction are more likely to go to treatment or to prison. Many people who need treatment for addiction have to rely public assistance to get it. Whether that help is available depends largely on how much taxpayers are willing to support it. That’s why it’s so important in media coverage and in regular conversation to convey that people struggling with addiction are first and foremost people. Language that emphasizes this fact and best reflects our current scientific understanding of addiction helps the public be better informed on the issue.
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. 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.