Dealing with stigma begins by mindfully choosing to understand what is actually going on and this starts in the language we use. Terms like “addict”, “junkie”, “druggie” and “alcoholic” simply ignore the science behind helping a person through a substance use disorder and distorts their personal transformation process by creating unnecessary stigma and undue shame.
Why do the words we use matter?
When words are used inappropriately to describe individuals with a substance use disorder, it not only negatively skews cultural perceptions of their “disease” but also feeds into the stigma that can stop people from seeking help, can stop people from going next door with that casserole dish. Using “addict” to describe someone struggling with a substance use disorder ignores the science and discredits the individual.
Much of the terminology used to describe addiction is disparaging — suggesting that addiction is a result of moral/personal failings, or that individuals choose to be addicted, or suffer a lack of willpower. As we know, addiction is a medical issue, and can be compounded by patient behavior just like many other illnesses, from type ll diabetes to heart disease and lung cancer.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5), released in 2013, replaced the categories of substance “abuse” and “dependence” with a single classification of “substance use disorder.” We need to align our dinner table terms with the science and the doctors.
When referring to people who have a substance use disorder or any medical condition, it is best to use “person-first language” — emphasizing the person before the disorder. For example, using the phrase: “individual with a substance use disorder,” is starkly different than labelling someone an “addict” or “junkie,” both of which are stigmatizing terms that falsely represent addiction as an identity instead of a disease.
Terms like “clean” or “dirty” should be reserved for describing the dishes in your dishwasher, not people. Don’t use them to describe an individual’s current state of substance use; you can use more accurate language, such as “not currently using substances,” or “a person who is currently using substances.”
Paying attention to the language that we use about addiction can help us make significant strides toward removing a major barrier to people asking for help and helps cultivate a more realistic concept of the disease. Words can do demonstrable damage to a person in or seeking recovery. Or, words can offer hope.
With better language we can tackle stigma; with less stigma, we can make sure the 21 million families currently struggling with addiction find the treatment and support they need.
The approach to recovery is different to each person. Finding help that is dynamic and progressive in adapting around you as an individual is a very imprtant step in the process. When we finally drop all the stigmas, past drama the care approach provides that platform to look at the issues with intergrity and begin dealing with the root causes and not the inflammatory symptoms.