Watch Your Mouth: It Matters How You Use the Language of Addiction

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Dr. Kimball was asked to read a brief story. It told of a man having a difficult time complying with court-ordered addiction treatment. From start to finish, Dr. Kimball referred to this man as “the addict.” Dr. Jeffries read the same story, only his version referred to the man as “having a substance use disorder.”

Can you guess which doctor blamed the man for his hardship and recommended punishment?

A recent study in the International Journal on Drug Policy is one of many highlighting the importance of word choice. The healthcare professional who saw the man as an “addict” took a negative view. When he’s a patient with a “disorder,” the same medical professional saw him as a man in need of help.

The Impact of Self-Talk

If you think of yourself as a “junkie,” “addict” or “abuser,” you probably feel ashamed and embarrassed. This is the kind of negative self-talk that makes you less likely to ask for help and more likely to continue a harmful lifestyle.

On the other hand, if healthcare professionals, treatment centers and society as a whole view you as someone who is sick and needs care, you’re more likely to seek treatment. You no longer feel like a bad person who needs to be punished. A simple turn of phrase raises you to the level of patient, rather than criminal.

Leaders in the field of “substance abuse” hope to create new norms for terminology that reduce stigma and encourage “those with substance abuse disorders” to seek treatment.

Can We Rewrite the Culture?

Advocates pushing for an addiction language overhaul are fighting an uphill battle. Many common addiction terms are literally and figuratively ingrained in our society. Many of the professionals asking for language changes belong to well-respected organizations and industry thought-leaders, including:

  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
  • The American Society of Addiction Medicine
  • The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy

One Voice at a Time

The key to this new linguistic attitude is to remember that our culture is made up of millions of voices. And your individual voice does have an effect. If you know someone struggling with chemical dependency, realize your choice of words can show them love and understanding – or push them further down the dark path of addiction.

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