Language to Avoid When Talking About Substance Use

What is stigma?

Stigma is a negative attitude or belief that is socially, internally or culturally attached to a person or behavior. We can see signs of stigma in our language. Though we may give it little thought, how we talk about things isn’t neutral! 

The language we use is important, because attached to every word or phrase is some sort of social or cultural meaning, which is where stigma finds its way in. Understanding this is especially important when we’re talking about substance use, because the stigma attached to much of the common vernacular around addiction is heavily stigmatizing. And that stigma leads to lots of shame, which can prevent folks from seeking the care they need

The mental health field is no stranger to evolving language

We know that overtime, as we learn more, sometimes a shift in language is necessary in order to reduce harm and prioritize care. There are many small examples all over the field–the shift from “suffers from mental illness” to “lives with mental illness” as the more popular alternative is one example. Another is the language around suicide shifting from phrases such as “committed suicide” to “died by suicide.” 

It’s important to update our language when talking about substance use and misuse as well. There is a general lack of understanding overall on the ways in which addiction as a disease operates, often fueled by outdated, stigma-heavy language. 

You can see it just in the way we talk about substance use as well. There is a certain degree of understanding that addiction is a disease, not an individual choice, but there is little understanding or compassion for the root causes of addiction. Instead of seeing folks struggling with isolation, chronic anxiety and depression, burnout, etc., who are only able to find some sort of relief through substance use, substance users are seen as bad people who have made poor choices. 

There are of course many circumstances and conditions that can lead to addiction that are genetic as well as social. 

However, ignoring the social circumstances and only looking at addiction through the lens of a genetic disease that can lead to addiction can add to that stigma and make it harder for people to feel comfortable reaching out for care. Shifting the way we view addiction to a more compassionate, personal & community centered approach has actually shown to be massively beneficial for substance users in recovery. 

Of course, we can’t fix stigma overnight. But one thing we can do in our own lives is shift our own language. 

Below is a list of language to avoid when talking about addiction & substance use, as well as more person-friendly alternatives to swap them out for. 

Words to avoid: 

  • Addict/Abuser/Junkie 
  • Lapse/slip
  • Clean [test results]
  • dirty [test results]
  • Drug habit
  • Recovered addict

Words to use instead: 

  • Person with a substance use disorder
  • Relapse/ recurrence of symptoms
  • Substance free/not actively using
  • Actively using
  • substance misuse/harmful use
  • Person in recovery

While many of the phrases on the second list may feel a bit longer or clunkier, they mark an important shift in the language. This gives a more person-centered approach without attaching blame to the person with a substance use disorder. 

Do you need support navigating substance use recovery? Contact us today, we can help!

-Lindsay N Sanner, LSCSW, RPT