People would be shocked if a teenager with cancer were to be called a cancer. So why would a teenager who struggles with addiction be called an addict? Their illness should not define them; they are so much more than their disease.
To eliminate the stigma we need to eliminate the language that stigmatizes people. Many people use the word “addict” or “alcoholic”. These words are used all the time without any thought given to their effect.
What language should you use?
|“person with substance use disorder”
“person with addiction”
|“alcoholic or addict in recovery”
“recovering alcoholic or addict”
|“person in recovery”
“person in recovery from addiction”
“problematic substance use”
|“clean and sober”||“in recovery”|
|“dirty urine test”||“positive urine test”|
If you roll your eyes at political correctness …
This is not just a case of semantics or political correctness. It affects the qualify of care that people receive.
- For a better understanding of how language can be harmful to people with addiction, read this short article: Language of addiction itself can hurt, advocates say
- For a longer, scientific explanation, read this paper: Language, Substance Use Disorders, and Policy: The Need to Reach Consensus on an “Addiction-ary”
How is stigma harmful?
Stigma has only negative effects:
- people may avoid treatment because they experience judgement (blaming and shaming) and/or poor treatment;
- people often internalize the stigma; they see themselves as bad, weak, lazy or sinful which can drive further substance use;
- people may isolate themselves and socialize only with others with similar conditions. This can make recovery that much harder as they must leave their social circle and reintegrate into a society where they may have been judged and treated badly;
- families may isolate themselves to avoid the judgement of their communities.
- it restricts the funds advanced for research and treatment, resulting in long wait lists and slow progression of new treatments.
Stigma changes all the time, and varies from culture to culture. Today, we recognize that attempted suicide is a medical condition needing treatment. It seems inconceivable that it was once criminalized.
What can families do?
- Support, don’t judge. Judgment makes your loved one feel worse about themselves, making it harder and harder to recover. Remember that problematic substance use can happen to any of us.
- Watch your language
- Get educated
- Educate others
- Read more about stigma, how it is harmful and how to reduce it