Substance Use Disorder: How Language can Reduce Stigma

For those outside the recovery community, it might be a surprise to learn that terms such as “addict,” “substance abuse,” and “clean” are no longer considered correct. With the advent of ‘person-first’ language, used to minimize both conscious and conscious biases, new terminology and vocabulary have been adopted. While it can be challenging to relearn appropriate speech, the benefits and rewards have been studied and are compelling: reducing the dramatic and dark language surrounding substance use disorders encourages more and more people to self-identify issues and seek outside help. Person-first language puts the person quite literally before any additional information or identification, emphasizing the universality of the human experience over any specific differences.

Nationwide support

In January of 2017, the Office of National Drug Policy published a memo, directly addressing the move to person-first language. Some of the reasons behind the change involved the fact that people in recovery from substance use disorders faced far more negative social stigma than people with physical or psychiatric disabilities, despite the fact that substance use disorders are now recognized as medical issues in their own right. Even when clinicians or treatment providers don’t realize it, the constant use of negative messaging associated with people with substance use disorders adversely affects both the quality of care provided and the long-term efficacy of treatment. Likewise, the people who have substance use disorders may see themselves or their recovery in a less positive light,

How to make the change

In all the Ammon Foundation blogs and literature, we have made an effort to implement person-first language, but these types of positive linguistic changes can be done by any person, at any level of any organization, with a very small amount of effort. For instance, both ‘addiction’ and ‘alcoholism’ can be replaced with ‘substance use disorder.’ ‘Drug abuse’ connotes that the person using was on some level an abuser, which has negative emotional valence. If there is only one change you can commit to making in your own writing and speech, it could be moving towards person-first language overall, which replaces single-term labels with ‘person’ followed by a descriptor of their situation. It can be too easy to forget that behind every diagnosis or label is a person with emotions and needs. Letting our verbiage reflect our shared humanity is a positive step towards empathy for all.

Person-first language is just one example of the advocacy programs the Ammon Foundation is committed to. Another is our Scholarship Foundation, helping people in long-term recovery return to or continue their educations. For more information, please visit the Ammon Foundation blog!