When you hear the term “addict,” what do you think of?

The term addiction is derived from addict—“to be devoted.” Within the last century, the meaning has evolved to stigmatize the substance-use disorder community, invoking stereotypes and shame.

The medical and recovery community are now working to shift the language used to describe and approach the substance-use disorder community.

Here are a few examples of alternative terms:

Addiction = Substance-use disorder

Addict = Person with substance-use disorder

Drug abuse = Drug misuse

Clean = Abstinent

Dirty = Actively using

How we perceive and treat people with substance-use disorder has a direct impact on access to treatment and long-term recovery for this community. The language we use to identify this disease is crucial in addressing solutions for people experiencing it.

“We know a term like ‘abuse’ or ‘substance abuse’ can actually change the way that medical professionals proceed with the patient if that’s terminology they’re used to using,” Sam Arsenault explained. “It also stigmatizes the person who is seeking treatment, which is a reason people with substance-use disorder don’t seek treatment.”

Arsenault is the vice president of National Treatment Quality Initiatives for Shatterproof, a nonprofit that advocates for treatment and recovery from substance-use disorder. She and her team are working to support the substance-use disorder treatment sector to deliver high-quality care. By emphasizing the use of best practices for treating people with the disorders, their work brings attention to quality measurement and engagement, and provides understanding on the barriers therein.

Enhanced Lens

Arsenault explained that stigmatizing language plays into the notion that the addiction is about failing, when the treatment community wants to advance the belief that it is a disease. To that end, the need to maximize medical terminology in order to talk about how to treat that disease is ever paramount.

“You don’t say that people who have diabetes are sugar abusers—that would create a scenario where we’re blaming them for their illness,” she pointed out. “And the same is true for substance-use disorder.”

By changing the language, supporters hope that society will adjust and continue to see the substance-use treatment community/movement through an enhanced lens, as well as the individuals affected.

According to Arsenault, self-stigma is just as much a part of the struggle. If a person believes they are less human—an “addict” rather than a person with a disease—they are less likely to seek treatment, remain in treatment, and maintain recovery.

Currently, the stigmatizing language that accompanies substance-use disorder can make it very difficult for affected individuals to productively pursue treatment and/or a life post-treatment. Experts are finding that language modification is becoming one of the most effective methods in reducing the damaging stigma associated with substance-use disorder.

Adjusting our own terminology in this regard will likely contribute to further progress in the collective battle to stamp out the nationwide substance-use epidemic. Every little bit helps. We all can play a part.

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