• Alysa Salzberg

The importance of words in addiction recovery

If you’ve ever been called a nasty name, you know that words have power, despite the old “sticks and stones” saying.


While insults may make us angry or sad, for people struggling with substance abuse, the words most of us use to talk about addiction can cut even deeper.


Terms like “junkie” and “crackhead” don’t just attack someone’s sense of self-esteem; they imply that a person struggling with addiction is their addiction. When we talk about other illnesses and disorders, we usually say “a person with….” .When we talk about substance abuse, on the other hand, most of us simply use a title: “addict,” “lush”, “druggie.”


The World Health Organization has identified drug addiction as the most stigmatized condition in the world. In fact, the word “addiction” itself carries a stigma. And that might be a good place to begin.


Experts and advocates like Dr. Lipi Roy suggest that if we can shift our way of talking about addiction, we may better understand the condition, accept those who struggle with it, and make them feel more supported and more willing to ask for help.


For instance, Roy and her colleagues suggest replacing the word “addiction” with substance use disorder (SUD). This term describes the condition in a neutral yet informative way. There is no approval or disapproval, and no history of the term being used negatively.


You may be wondering if this is really necessary, or if it’s simply another way society is becoming more “politically correct”. But there is a goal beyond respect. Medical experts hope that this vocabulary shift may make people suffering with SUD realize that they are not their condition, that they shouldn’t be ashamed, and that they can get help.


In a particularly interesting example of this cited in Roy’s article in Forbes, Dr. Richard Saitz explains, “We expect people with other chronic illnesses to receive long-term treatment – so going ‘in and out of rehab’ should be viewed favorably as seeking ongoing care”.


With that viewpoint, those who relapse (or, as advocates prefer to say, “return to use”) may feel less discouraged or overwhelmed by their condition, and more willing to seek help.


Changing the vocabulary around substance abuse may also improve medical care. Roy points out that words like “clean” and “dirty” are common descriptors for people who are not currently using substances or who are, respectively. Judgment-laden terms like these would be shocking if they were used with other medical conditions. This judgment goes beyond vocabulary; studies show that medical professionals tend to perceive patients with SUD more negatively than others, leading to less attention and positive treatment.


So, how can healthcare providers, patients, and society in general begin to change the language they use with substance abuse issues and patients? One easy solution that Roy suggests is to use the Addictionary, a free online compendium of more neutral, yet easy-to-understand terms, compiled by Dr. John Kelly of the Recovery Research Institute .


Addiction isn’t a choice or personality trait; it’s a disease. By changing our way of thinking about this disease and those who suffer from it, we may see higher recovery rates. Changing our vocabulary is one way to start.





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