Positive Language for Stigma Reduction

Language towards those with substance use disorder is a crucial part of their recovery process. The words and phrases we use frame the public perception on addiction and recovery, affecting how individuals see themselves and their ability to change. How we address those with substance use disorder can, intentionally or unintentionally, propel stigma and create a mark of disgrace, dishonor and segregates the individual from believing they can defeat their addiction.

Stigma decreases when the public perceives individuals with addiction as not being responsible for causing his/her problem and that they are unable to control it. Did you know that those with substance use disorder are perceived more negatively than those with psychiatric disabilities, although both are considered brain chemistry disorders?

By understanding that 50% of the cause of addiction is genetics, and the rest is caused by the effects from the substances on the nervous system, leading to changes in brain chemistry and function that are impaired from use without the substance being present. Addiction is technically a chronic brain disorder and while individuals affected can recover, they need to have the utmost willpower to do so. Utilizing positive reinforcement and language helps that recovery process initiate, especially coming from doctors, family members, and counselors.

The accurate and clinical terminology for someone battling addiction is a “Substance Use Disorder Patient”. Some terms that can be perceived negatively are: “drug addict”, “abuser”, “junkie”, “dope sick”, “substance abuser”.

Specifically, the use of language towards someone with substance use disorder should include the following:

  1. It should respect the dignity and worth of the individual
  2. Language should avoid negative stereotypes through slang use
  3. Promote the recovery process
  4. Focus on the clinical nature of treatment and the disorder

Why are words so important?

In 2015, around 20.8 million Americans had an alcohol or drug use disorder. Additionally, 27.1 million people reported illicit drug use in the past month. However, 89% of those individuals estimated needed treatment did not receive any treatment services. While we cannot say this is due to stigma, if you were labeled a certain way by admitting to having an issue, would you seek out help?

It’s not on the same wavelength but think back to elementary school and the kids wearing glasses. If they were called “four eyes” on a consistent basis, did those kids choose to sit up close in class and not utilize their glasses as much? Sure they did, they didn’t want to face the stigma of not being considered “normal” by their peers.

We can work together to strike out stigma, and it starts with acceptance that addiction is not a choice. #StrikeOutStigma


Botticelli, Michael. (2017). Changing Federal Terminology Regrading Substance Use and Substance Use Disorders

Broyles, LM. (2014). Confronting inadvertent stigma and pejorative language in addiction scholarship: a recognition and response.

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