The Power of Words: Using Non-Stigmatizing Language to Talk About Addiction

The way we talk about addiction is constantly advancing. Considering what we say when speaking about addiction helps us move forward positively and allows for society to encourage those struggling with it to seek the treatment they need. Making people feel understood and unjudged only drives them to open up and be more receptive to treatment and recovery.

This article will cover stigma, including what it is and how it relates to addiction, as well as how we can improve upon the ways we discuss addiction.

What is Stigma?

Stigma, which is defined as a prejudice against a specific group of people, places, or nations, is highly prevalent for those who experience addiction both first and second hand.1 In many cases, stigma contributes to the idea that people with a substance use disorder are morally bankrupt, rather than individuals grappling with a devastating disease.1 Engaging in behaviors like utilizing derogatory words can continue to fuel the misconception that people with substance use disorders are incapable of help, are dangerous, and are unpredictable.1

Unfortunately, stigmatizing attitudes create barriers for those who need treatment. Not fully understanding this disease can promote pity, fear, anger, and even a desire to avoid those who have an addiction.1 This lack of understanding, as well as the general stigma that accompanies addiction, can even influence healthcare professionals, potentially compromising the care those addicted to drugs and alcohol need to recover.1

Using Words to Destigmatize Addiction

No matter what is being discussed, the words we use matter. Words serve as the ultimate form of expression, therefore it is critical to ensure that the ones we use are helpful rather than harmful, especially when discussing serious matters like addiction.

Perpetuating addiction-related stigma can deeply influence the thoughts and opinions those who are experiencing a substance use disorder can have about themselves, oftentimes leading them to struggle with self-esteem and questioning their own self-worth. Therefore, it is imperative to discuss addiction with the same empathy that we would other medical or mental health conditions, as this, too, is not a choice, rather a disease. By doing so, we can help people obtain the care they need, establish positive support systems, and encourage their recovery without fear of being judged.

Addiction Terms to Avoid and Which Ones to Use

There are several words used to describe addiction, many of which have been born out of frustration, fear, and sadness. Sometimes, we do not always realize the harm that our words can cause because they are so commonly used throughout society. However, in order to advance as a people, recognizing where we can improve can be more beneficial than we might initially think. Below are some commonly used stigmatizing words used to describe addiction and those who experience it, as well as more appropriate ways we can discuss this ever-important topic.1

Avoid: Addict, user, junkie, alcoholic, drunk, former addict, reformed addict

Use: Person with substance use disorder, person with alcohol use disorder, patient, person in recovery

Why: Uses person-first language, clarifies that addiction is the problem and not the person, and does not promote negative associations or individual blame1

Avoid: Abuse (for illicit substances)

Use: Use

Why: Can cause cynical judgments and chastisement1

Avoid: Abuse (for prescription medications)

Use: Misuse, or used other than prescribed

Why: Considers the motivations and intent of use rather than assuming based on judgement1

Avoid: Habit

Use: Substance use disorder, drug addiction, alcohol addiction

Why: Can denigrate the significance of the disease itself, implies that choice plays a role in using substances and the ability to stop1

Avoid: Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)

Use: Addiction medication, pharmacotherapy, medication for a substance use disorder

Why: Clarifies the misconception that medications only substitute one drug addiction for another, refutes the misconception that medication only plays a temporary role in treatment1

Avoid: Clean (toxicology screening results)

Use: Testing negative

Why: Uses clinically accurate language that is used when describing all other medical conditions1

Avoid: Clean (as in being sober)

Use: Being in remission or recovery, abstinent from drugs/alcohol, not drinking or taking drugs, or not currently or actively using drugs/alcohol

Why: May illicit negative and disciplinary perceptions, setting an example on how to utilize non-stigmatizing language related to addiction1

Avoid: Dirty (for toxicology purposes)

Use: Testing positive

Why: Can discourage the patient from receiving treatment while “testing positive” uses clinically appropriate terminology that is used for all other medical conditions and is non-stigmatizing.1

Avoid: Dirty (for non-toxicology purposes)

Use: Person who uses drugs

Why: Uses the clinically correct terminology that is used for all other medical conditions, helps reduce the likelihood of the individual losing their sense of hope1

Avoid: Addicted baby

Use: Baby born to mother who used drugs while pregnant, baby with signs of withdrawal from prenatal drug exposure, newborn exposed to substances, or baby with neonatal opioid withdrawal/neonatal abstinence syndrome.

Why: Reduces stigma through the use of first-person language, uses clinically accurate terminology, refutes the misconception that babies can be born with addiction when what they are really experiencing is withdrawal syndrome instead1

Get Help for Addiction at Oxford Treatment Centers

Addiction can affect people from all walks of life, whether first-hand or consequently. Seeking treatment may be a hard step, but it’s a potentially life-changing choice. At Oxford, we offer multiple levels of treatment, including medical detox, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), and inpatient drug and alcohol rehab in Mississippi.

Finances may be another barrier to treatment, but do not be discouraged. Multiple rehab payment options are available. Most health insurance covers rehab to some extent. There are also other ways to pay for treatment, like self-payment, loans, and government funding. If you’re ready to start treatment, contact Oxford Treatment Center at for more information on addiction care and treatment admissions.

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