Why Words Matter When We Talk About Addiction

Addiction is a matter of life or death, and the way we talk about it can make all the difference. When it comes to substance use, using person-first language can help reduce the stigma around this challenging disease and support people in finding the help they need.

This page will break down the origin of addiction-related stigma and how it affects those with substance use disorder, terms to use and avoid, and other helpful addiction resources.

What Is Addiction Stigma?

Stigma is a form of prejudice and discrimination against a specific group of people. It often originates from ignorance or fear and results in people being treated differently, due to misleading or inaccurate information.1,2

Stigma can come from the public through negative attitudes, from oneself through internalized shame, or from institutional influences that limit opportunities for people in stigmatized communities. It may be subtle or blatant, but either way, stigma is harmful and can keep people marginalized.2

Addiction stigma involves negative beliefs and attitudes specifically about people who suffer from substance use disorder (SUD).1  

For example, some people assume that a person who struggles with addiction is automatically dangerous, unpredictable, or irresponsible.1,3

This may stem from outdated views that addiction is a moral failing, while we now know that addiction is a chronic, yet treatable brain disease.3

How Stigma Affects Those With Substance Use Disorder

Stigma can have a negative impact on a person with SUD, including worsening psychiatric symptoms and poorer treatment outcomes. A person struggling with SUD may be wary of seeking treatment to avoid feeling shame or judgment.1,2 

Stigma may also adversely affect doctors and their perceptions of people with addiction and other mental health conditions, which can, in turn, affect the care they provide.1

People who buy into the stigmatizing viewpoints of people with SUD may choose to keep their distance out of fear, disgust, pity, or anger, ultimately decreasing that person’s support network, which is an important component of recovery.

This can lead to:2

  • Withdrawal and isolation.
  • Fewer opportunities at work and in the community.
  • Relationship problems.
  • Increased susceptibility to bullying and harassment.
  • Less time and lower engagement in treatment.
  • Reduced hope.

The stereotyping and discrimination that occurs as a result of addiction stigma can be harmful to people of all ages.

Discrimination in the workplace, at school, in the community, and beyond can trigger displacement and various disadvantages throughout a person’s lifespan. Studies show that even youth struggling with SUD may experience barriers to treatment due to addiction stigma.4,5

What We Can Do to Destigmatize Addiction

When we can recognize and accept that addiction is a disease, we can begin to use non-stigmatizing language that avoids judgment and shame. Just as illnesses like diabetes and cancer have a combination of underlying causes, so too does addiction.

Repeated substance use can rewire a person’s brain, leading them to compulsively seek drugs or alcohol despite the negative consequences. This is why the idea that someone should just be able to immediately quit using a substance is misguided and unrealistic.7

Non-stigmatizing terms and phrasing employ person-first or person-centered language that reflects the scientific nature of addiction and does not equate a person to their condition. By using supportive, respectful words that keep the whole person in mind, we can reduce stigma and increase feelings of acceptance for people with SUD.3

Addiction Terms to Use, Terms to Avoid, and Why

In an effort to destigmatize addiction, researchers have surveyed people struggling with SUD to determine the most appropriate and non-stigmatizing language others can use when talking about the disease.8,9

Here is a list of suggested terms to avoid, preferred alternatives, and why.1,10*

Avoid: Addict

Use Instead: Person with substance use disorder

Why: The new phrase separates the disease from the person, showing that he or she “has”—rather than “is”—a problem.

Avoid: Alcoholic

Use Instead: Person with alcohol use disorder

Why: Changing the language reduces negative associations and attitudes.

Avoid: Drunk, Drunkard

Use Instead: Person who misuses alcohol, person who engages in hazardous alcohol use, person who engages in unhealthy alcohol use

Why: The original term encourages negative attitudes and blame.

Avoid: User, Druggie

Use Instead: Person with substance use disorder, person with opioid use disorder (OUD)

Why: The new phrase reduces negative attitudes and associations.

Avoid: Substance or drug abuser

Use Instead: Patient, person struggling with substance use, person with substance use disorder, person who suffers from addiction

Why: The new term supports the fact that addiction is a treatable disease.

Avoid: Junkie, Dopehead, Doper, Pothead, Crackhead

Use Instead: Person in active use, person who uses substances

Why: The word “junkie” reduces a person to a problem and places blame on them.

Avoid: Reformed addict

Use Instead: Person who previously used drugs, person who suffered from addiction

Why: People surveyed preferred this new language to the more stigmatizing alternatives.

Avoid: Former addict

Use Instead: Person in recovery, person in long-term recovery

Why: The new language supports a positive focus and avoids stigmatizing labels like “addict.”

Avoid: Abuse

Use Instead: Use or misuse, use other than prescribed

Why: The term “abuse” is associated with negative connotations and punishment.

Avoid: Habit

Use Instead: Drug addiction, substance use disorder, SUD, alcohol use disorder, AUD, drug use disorder, active addiction, non-medical use, problematic use, risky use, unhealthy use, harmful use

Why: “Habit” undermines the seriousness of addiction as a disease and assumes that it is something that can easily be stopped through choice.

Avoid: Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)

Use Instead: Addiction medication, medication for a substance use disorder, medication, treatment, medication for addiction treatment

Why: The new language is more aligned with the medical standard of addiction as a treatable disease.

Avoid: Opioid substitution replacement therapy

Use Instead: Medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD), pharmacotherapy, opioid agonist therapy, medication for opioid addiction

Why: The old terminology supports the idea that addiction medication is merely substituting one drug for another.

Avoid: Clean

Use Instead: Testing negative, negative test, in remission, in recovery, abstinent from drugs, not taking drugs, not drinking, not currently or actively using drugs, on the path toward recovery

Why: Using the word “clean” implies that a person was once “dirty.”

Avoid: Dirty

Use Instead: Testing positive, positive test, currently using substances, currently taking drugs

Why: Removing the word “dirty” avoids shame and supports a less judgmental understanding of addiction.

Avoid: Addicted baby, Crack baby

Use Instead: Baby exposed to substances, baby born to a mother who used drugs during pregnancy, baby with signs of withdrawal from a substance, baby with prenatal drug exposure, baby with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), baby with neonatal opioid withdrawal, newborn exposed to substances

Why: Babies cannot be born addicted but, more accurately, can be born exposed to substances

Find Help for Addiction at Recovery First

Addiction is a complex disease, but it is treatable. At Recovery First, our inpatient addiction treatment facility near Miami offers different types of rehab designed to meet the individual needs of each patient.

To learn more about our programs, paying for rehab, or using insurance to pay for rehab, contact our admissions navigators at . They can answer all your questions and help you start treatment today.

You can also check whether we accept your specific insurance by filling out this simple and secure .

When you’re ready, we are ready to provide the support you need and deserve to recover from addiction.

*Note: As terminology evolves, we are committed to evolving with it. While our website does contain some older terminology based on how people look for and find information, we are consistently working to update our language to reflect changes in the addiction treatment landscape.

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