Health Officials Highlight the Stigmatizing Language Of Addiction

By Victoria Kim 04/11/17

Before a recent naloxone-training event, public health officials offered a lesson about the language surrounding addiction.

A man making a presentation to the public.

The way we talk about addiction has a lot to do with how we perceive it, and the people who are affected by it. Public health officials in Nashua, New Hampshire, sought to drive this message home at a public event—with a lesson on stigmatizing language.

About 30 people gathered at the Nashua Public Library for a free training session last month on how to administer the overdose reversal drug, naloxone (also known as Narcan). The event was prefaced with a vocabulary lesson, which illustrated the power of both stigmatizing and empowering language when discussing people who use mind-altering substances.

A handout provided to NHPR by Nashua’s Department of Public Health (DPH), suggests saying “person with a substance use disorder” instead of “addict, junkie, or alcoholic.” Instead of saying “clean,” a better alternative would be “abstinent” or “not using.” 

The list goes on, and its message is clear: language matters. And it’s about more than political correctness. “When we change the way we discuss substance use, we are not simply being ‘politically correct,’ we are actually changing the way the people around us perceive, understand, and respond to substance use,” reads the handout.

More people are getting on board with this language overhaul. Last year, the National Press Foundation wrote guidelines for journalists on how to write about addiction without marginalizing, or “othering,” the community.

DPH even acknowledges that some people in the recovery community may still choose to identify as an “addict” or “alcoholic”—and if they choose to do so, more power to them. 

“[These] are terms used in anonymous communities as part of their culture and fellowship, and they have been used for a long time,” reads the handout. “If someone chooses to self-identify as an ‘addict’ or ‘alcoholic,’ it is not up to anyone else to correct them, because they are using that term in a way that has assisted with their own self-acceptance and recovery.”

Psychotherapist Dr. Suzette Glasner told The Fix last year that for some, using this seemingly stigmatizing terminology can unite people with a shared problem. 

“In a room full of other people whose lives have been adversely affected by alcohol use, to refer to oneself as an alcoholic or addict may provide some comfort, because it is a term that describes a problem that unites each person with everyone around them, and it provides a term to describe what it is that they are all suffering from, and a reminder that they are not alone,” said Dr. Glasner.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr