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Letters spelling words

I’ve spent almost my entire career as a psychotherapist working with individuals with Substance Use Disorder. I’ve listened for over 30 years, and one of the things I have learned very well is that words have power. Words can actually save lives.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s report of 2016, “Facing Addiction In America” estimates that of the approximately 21 million people in America with Substance Use Disorder in 2015, a mere 10% received treatment. Dr. Murthy goes on to say that “stigma has created an added burden of shame that has made people with substance use disorders less likely to come forward and seek help.” In 2015, there were 52,404 fatalities directly attributable to drug overdose!  When it comes to addiction, hesitation to seek help costs lives.

Words have immense power. Here are some easy to use guidelines on how to use your words, every day, to dispel this deadly stigma and create compassion for people with Substance Use Disorder.

  • Person-First-Language
    Avoid words like “addict” and “alcoholic”. While seeming benign and without malintent, they nonetheless limit the definition of the entire person to their disease. Use person-first language instead, such as “person-with-an-opioid-use-disorder”, or “person-with-a-substance-use-disorder”. These terms serve to more accurately affirm the entire person, with the medical disorder being only a part of the person’s experience. Including the medical term “disorder” tends to raise public consciousness by emphasizing the medical nature of addiction.
  •  Avoid Judgmental Terms
    Avoid terms like “substance abuser” or “drug abuse”. These terms characterize the person with a substance use disorder as abusive, and cause judgmental and punitive attitudes toward them. Person-first language is most appropriate here, as are terms like “substance use” or “misuse”.When referring to Substance Use Testing Results, terms like “dirty” or “clean” should be avoided. These terms bring out judgment and unintentionally invite a punitive response. Medical terms such as “positive” or “negative” test results are more accurate, and tend to encourage a respectful and compassionate response.
  • Avoid Misleading Terminology
    Avoid terms like “recreational use”, or “casual use”. These terms can be misleading and add an inaccurate shade of safety to drug use. This is especially dangerous considering adolescents’ heightened tendency to use a drug if their perceived risk of harm is low. The term “use” is neutral, and therefore not misleading. “Misuse” characterizes either illegal or otherwise problematic use.

In order to raise public consciousness and dispel the stigma associated with substance use disorder, we, as concerned and informed individuals, can contribute to a compassionate approach to addiction and recovery in very impactful ways by being mindful of the words we choose when speaking of addiction, people with Substance Use Disorder, and the services they receive to support health.

Our history clearly attests to our ability to respond to similar emergent situations successfully, when we become motivated and organized. The Surgeon General’s Report of 1964 sparked the initiative that has led to remarkable progress regarding tobacco use and health. And the Surgeon General’s Report of 1989 sparked the equally remarkable response to the AIDS crisis.

I’ll end with one more quote from Dr. Murthy’s Surgeon General’s Report of 2016 : “We must help everyone see that addiction is not a character flaw – it is a chronic illness that we must approach with the same skill and compassion with which we approach heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.”

Let’s work together and bring about the day when people with Substance Use Disorder are welcomed with compassion into the mainstream of quality health-care in America. The potential gain to our country in cost-saving, productivity over the life-span, and the general health of our population is enormous. Decisions impacting this group must be grounded in medical science, and motivated by compassion if we are to move forward in an effective way as a nation.

And language is one of the keys that will unlock this sea-change and save lives.

Words matter… Let’s raise consciousness together… Together we can do this !!!

Additional Reading

Surgeon General Murthy’s Report:

Stop Talking Dirty, American Journal of Medicine Article:

Website: New Recovery Movement: The Rationale and Science on Recovery Support Services 

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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