Words matter. They can motivate us, encourage us, and make us feel like we’re on the top of the word. They can also make us feel hurt and bring us down. Words create filters through which we view the world around us. While words cannot change reality, they change how we perceive reality. The words we use when referring to people speaks volumes about how we think about them. They create cultural expectations, normalcies and sometimes place us into clashing stereotypes, keeping stigma afloat and supposed societal outcasts in the dark.
The Language of Addiction
We’ve seen throughout history that words that have been used to damage cultural diversity. Though evidence shows through years of hard work, and assiduous perseverance, those titles can be reclaimed into something effective.
For example, years ago the slogan “we’re here, we’re queer – get used to it,” developed by activist organization “Queen Nation,” was in response to outrage at the escalation of anti-gay and lesbian violence on the streets and prejudice in the media. While the term “queer” was once used as a weapons against the homosexual population, it perpetuated stigma. In recent years the LGBTQ community has changed the word, flipped the language, and embraced it as a term of pride in their community and around the world.
While much work has been done, some of the same can be said for substance abuse disorder. The opioid epidemic has risen exponentially in the last number of years with nearly 72,000 people succumbing to an overdose in 2017. As the numbers of fatalities have risen, so have headlines in the media spotlighting addiction and recovery. While the crisis has taken the spotlight on a number of platforms, the lexicon to define those who have become addicted have followed closely behind.
“Addicts.” “Alcoholics.” “Junkies.”
What first comes to mind when you hear those terms? There are some of us that think of a friend in recovery who’s been successful. Some think of a troubled celebrity that’s been headlined in the news. Maybe some think of a cousin that’s been in and out of treatment who can’t quite get it together. There are also those who hear the word “addict” and imagine a bum under a bridge drinking a forty ounce out of a wrinkled brown paper bag or a troubled felon who will rob you for all your worth.
The truth is, addiction is real, and unfortunately it is more common in today’s world. But when facing addiction, facing the language behind it is can sometimes be even more detrimental to those struggling to reach out for help. This type of terminology that has long been used to discuss addiction can perpetuate stigma, misunderstanding, and ultimately deter individuals with addiction from seeking help – in fear of their own negative thinking and the judgement they believe the language holds.
Research additionally shows that the use of the terms “abuse” and “abuser” negatively affects perceptions and judgements about people with substance abuse disorders, including whether they should receive punishment rather than medical care for their disease.
As the weight of the words continue to carry stigma, there have been organizations and agencies (much like Queer Nation) that have started to lift the weight of it.
In 2017, the Associated Press (AP) took a groundbreaking step to destigmitize addiction and removed the word “addict” as a noun. The current Stylebook encourages phrasing like “they were addicted” or “people with addictions.”
The way we speak about people typically speak volumes to how we think about them, and how we think typically influences our approaches to addressing them. Speaking in the terms “addict” and “alcoholic” can maintain negative and stigmatizing perceptions of the issue that influence the efficiency of our public and social health policies that address them. This lexicon can often place the person into a box that stimulates discrimination and judgments.
By speaking in first-person language, we humanize the person, and addiction no longer becomes the defining characteristic of the individual – it becomes merely a condition they must treat. For example, if a person has the disease of cancer – the patient is not “a cancer.”
Adversely, professionals have noted that it’s time to use words that don’t carry such a judgement and have resorted to “person-first language” such as “person with substance use disorder” to replace the negative terms and connotations such as “addict” or “junkie.”
In addition, in 2017, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy prepared a document for Federal agencies about terminology related to substance use and substance use disorders also promoting “person-first language.” The document addressed the role stigma played and identified scientific references and medical literature demonstrating how certain terminology adversely affects the quality of healthcare and treatment outcomes.
By placing the person first, addiction no longer is the defining characteristic of the individual but one of many attributes of the person acknowledging the person rather than the disease.
While the weight of this vernacular is slowly being reclaimed, the continuance of this will allow individuals to regain self-esteem, allow lawmakers legislation and funding, and help the public understand that substance use disorder as a medical condition that deserves to be treated like any other.
Going Beyond Political Correctness
While there’s still so much do be done in regards to legislation, the language and terminology goes beyond political correctness, and beyond a matter of being polite. We’re now aware that the exposure to these terms creates a bias and prevents proper healthcare from being carried out. To truly reclaim the the stigma and and become destigmatized, we must create language that’s unified and portrays what research has showed us over the past three decades.