When people think or talk about people living with addiction, words often are used that can be pejorative. Names like “crackhead,” “junkie,” “dope fiend” and “lush” are commonly used to label those with substance use disorders. The list goes on ad infinitum. While many of the names used to describe those living with life threatening mental health disorders have a history, and they are often spoken without offense being taken, the use of such monikers only serves to fuel the fiery stigma of addiction.
The Language of Addiction
Both researchers and advocates suggest that if we are to continue breaking down the stigma of addiction, it requires that we change how we talk about the illness, The Boston Globe reports. They are calling for the use of medically accepted terminology when talking about substance use disorders because pejorative words like “abuser” discourage people from reaching out for help.
“The biggest thing we trade in is hope,” said Dr. Barbara Herbert, Massachusetts Chapter President of the American Society of Addiction Medicine. “Our biggest enemy is hopelessness. That’s why I think language matters a lot.”
Standardized Communication About Addiction
For the first time in American history, we have a Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, who is himself in recovery. Michael Botticelli would like to do away with words to describe addiction that have negative connotations, and standardize federal communication about addiction, according to the article.
“For a long time, we’ve known that language plays a huge role in how we think about people and how people think about themselves,” said Botticelli. “Words have to change so attitudes change.”
He points out that saying someone is “clean” from drugs, implies that active drug use is dirty, the article reports. He adds that: “We don’t say for a diabetic whose blood sugar spikes that they have a ‘dirty blood sugar.”
Choose Your Words Wisely
Removing stigma can begin with an intervention. Substance abuse interventions are to be carefully planned and facilitated by an interventionist who might also be a licensed counselor or social worker. Typically the meeting is held in a private, neutral location where all family and friends who are participating can feel comfortable sharing their feelings and concerns. The interventionist coaches the group to choose their words wisely and to present a united front in the form of rehearsed, straightforward messages about the facts of the problem and its impact on others. An intervention is not about creating guilt trips or placing blame. It is about being firm and compassionate conveying the consequences that have resulted from addiction and share the group’s desire for the addicted individual to make positive changes.
Promoting positive changes can be the first step in removing stigma!