Opioid Epidemic

Softly Spoken Advocacy

Letters spelling words

Language regarding people with Substance Use Disorder must be clear, accurate and based in truth and compassion.

In order for us as professionals, leaders and deeply concerned individuals to raise consciousness and dispel the stigma attached to people with Substance Use Disorder, we must be as unified and unambiguous as possible. We must speak the same language, to each other and to the public.


I am reminded of an interaction with a colleague at a National Conference four years ago where I used the term “addict” during a conversation a small group of us were engaged in. Afterwards she approached me and pointed out that “we,” our profession, we’re trying not to use pejorative or limiting terms any longer. She pointed out that the term “addict” limited the definition of the person to one aspect of the whole person and that “person-first-language” was more appropriate and not stigmatizing. She suggested I use the term “person with addiction” or “person with substance use disorder.”

I have been mindful of the language I choose ever since that afternoon, and I must say that there is a “softly spoken advocacy” present in many of my formal and informal conversations today as a result. This feels right to me.

Here are some examples of suggested changes in language from the Recovery Research Institute’s “Addiction-ary” you may be interested in:

·       ABUSER

Stigma Alert

A person who exhibits impaired control over engaging in substance use (or other reward-seeking behavior, such as gambling) despite suffering often severe harms caused by such activity.

The word “abuser” was found in research to increase stigma, which can affect quality of care and act as a barrier to treatment-seeking in individuals suffering from addiction.

Suggested Alternative

Instead, many have recommended the use of “person first language“; instead of describing someone as a “drug abuser” to describe him/her as “a person with, or suffering from addiction or substance use disorder.”


Stigma Alert

The use of a substance for unintended or intended purposes in improper amounts or doses. Term has a stigma alert, due to the inference of judgment and blame.

Suggested Alternative

Instead, many recommend using the terms “substance use” or “non-medical use.”


Stigma Alert – No Suggested Alternative

Immoderate emotional or psychological reliance on a partner. Often used with regard to a partner requiring support due to an illness or disease (e.g., substance use disorder). Term has a stigma alert, as the term has not shown scientific merit.

These terms surely are most often spoken without malice, but they are, unfortunately, inaccurate at best and they fail to raise consciousness.

As leaders, or deeply concerned individuals, we can contribute a lot to this movement to eradicate stigma.  We can do something about the tragedy of addiction every day by simply making mindful choices regarding the language we use.

I cannot think of another return on an investment being as profitable as this.

The link below is to the Recovery Research Institute’s Addiction-ary, a compendium of words and phrases we commonly use on a daily basis.

It’s been created by The Recovery Research Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. It is fairly exhaustive in scope, and a great resource for both professionals in this field and other concerned individuals.

I hope you find it useful.

Ed Baker is a Licensed Alcohol/Drug Counselor and Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker and Aspenti Health’s Education Specialist. Ed has practiced psychotherapy with individuals with Substance Use Disorder for over 30 years in both inpatient and outpatient private practice settings. Ed researches and reports on subjects related to psychoactive drugs and use trends, substance use disorder, treatment, and recovery. Ed himself is in personal recovery from addiction for 33 years.

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