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Language Matters: How you can play your part in stopping the stigma

Did you ever hear the mantra “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” when you were growing up? You may have learned as you got older that words do in fact have the power to do a lot of harm. Even though that rhyme was intended to help people ignore when kids say mean things to them, it’s important to acknowledge how much harm words can actually have on a person and their mental wellbeing. As we have gotten older, that lesson may have become more clear but some words can be more harmful than others. In this article, I will be referring to substance misuse. This is something that has taken over the United States and created an epidemic since the early 2000s.

Changing language may seem like a small task but oftentimes the word choices we make have more harm than we initially recognize. Making small strides to recognize what the language you are using promotes is a good step to creating a friendly environment. Language has a big impact on this epidemic, it can perpetuate the stigma surrounding addiction creating fear and judgment. This results in people avoiding treatment and not seeking help in fear of being judged or from hearing misinformation about treatment. People with inaccurate beliefs may believe that addiction is a moral failing, with no chance of recovery or at rehabilitation. Instead, it should be viewed as a chronic, treatable disease from which patients can recover and continue to lead healthy lives. This view on addiction not only affects people in active recovery but also people who are too scared to seek out recovery, as shame and stigma prevent people from even reaching out to their loved ones for support.

Many organizations that work to create a safer space and resources for those suffering from substance use disorder encourage the use of “person first language.” Person first language shows that a person “has” a problem, rather than “is” the problem.  For example, “person with a substance use disorder” has a neutral tone and distinguishes the person from his or her diagnosis.

Taking into consideration how much your words matter and what you say can help influence the outcome of this epidemic and even save lives. So think about the following words and how you may use them in your everyday language to help avoid perpetuating the stigma:

Avoid words like Addict, Abuser, Junkie, these terms are demeaning because they label a person by their illness.

Instead, use the term person with substance use disorder.

Avoid the words, Former addict, Reformed addict, these terms can elicit negative associations, punitive attitudes, and individual blame.

Instead, use the term person in recovery or long-term recovery or person who previously used drugs.


Avoid the word Abuse, the term “abuse” was found to have a high association with negative judgments and punishment.

Instead, use substance use, misuse, or used other than prescribed.

Language is a very impactful thing that we all can work hard to change and incorporate into our lives. Small steps like this can help eliminate the stigma in our society of addiction and make greater strides to stop this epidemic.

“The biggest killer out there is stigma. Stigma keeps people in the shadows. Stigma keeps people from coming forward and asking for help. Stigma keeps families from admitting that there is a problem.” Jerome Adams, U.S. Surgeon General. 

If you are interested in getting more involved or finding out more information, check out the resources at NAADAC and SAMHSA.

Hi! I'm Sarah Daly, I am a Strategic Communications + Policy Studies major at Elon University. I am passionate about mental health, writing, and creativity.
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