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The Importance of Language in Reducing the Stigma Often Associated with Substance Use Disorders

Words matter, especially when we as a society continue to fight the stigma against those struggling with addiction. As we learn more every day about drug and alcohol addiction disorders, we also have to contend with the fact that helpful and educational terms change over time. Sometimes it can be hard to keep up with, but it’s important for allies to those in recovery to stay up-to-date on the do’s and don’ts of addiction-related language. Let’s break down which words are helpful and others that may hurt people.

Instead of Addict, Use…

“Addict,” “user,” “junkie,” “abuser,” “alcoholic,” “drunk,” and others can be harmful labels to place on people who are simply fighting a disease. After all, we don’t refer to someone with cancer as “a cancer,” do we? When we refer to someone with an addiction or in recovery, we want to avoid terms that elicit negative reactions and perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

Instead, use terms like “person with a substance-use disorder,” “person struggling with opioid-use disorder/alcohol-use disorder,” or “person in recovery.” This person-first language shows that the person has a problem, rather than insinuating that they are the problem.

Instead of Clean or Dirty, Use…

Often the words “clean” or “dirty” refer to someone testing positive or negative for drugs and alcohol, or to describe someone who may be in active addiction or in recovery. But who really wants to be called clean or dirty?

Instead, try to use clinically accurate terms like “tested negative/positive,” “in remission/recovery,” or “in active addiction/recovery.” We need to refer to addiction in a clinical sense in order to set an example that this is a disease like any other illness.

Instead of Abuse, Use…

“Use,” “misuse,” “used other than prescribed” are better ways of describing someone in active addiction. Oftentimes the word “abuse” is associated with harmful judgements that may prevent someone from asking for help when they need it.

How Medication-Assisted Treatment is Evolving

When we describe someone in treatment and receiving Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT), we’re referring to someone taking prescribed medications that help reduce withdrawal symptoms and curb cravings for harmful drugs or alcohol. Today, addiction professionals are getting more specific and using terms like “Medication for Opioid Use Disorder” (MOUD) and “Medication for Alcohol Use Disorder” (MAUD).

When society uses harmful language toward people struggling with addiction, it can hinder their willingness to receive help when they need it the most. At the end of the day, we’re all human and that person struggling with addiction is someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister, mom or dad, and best friend. There’s a family and support system behind them who loves and cares about them.

If you or a loved one is struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, call Spectrum Health Systems today at 1-877-MyRehab.

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