Advocates Call for Judgment-Free Language When Speaking of Addiction

    A number of researchers and advocates are calling attention to the language of addiction, and the need for using medical terms free of judgment, The Boston Globe reports.

    These advocates say that commonly used words such as “junkie,” “abuser,” “substance abuse” and “addict” can increase the stigma surrounding addiction. They argue that such language can discourage people from seeking help and lead health professionals to treat patients harshly.

    “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.”

    Advocates do not uniformly agree on which words are most harmful, and which words should be used instead. The terms “substance abuse” and “drug abuse” are part of titles of government agencies, nonprofits and scientific journals. The term “person with a substance use disorder,” preferred by some advocates, is unwieldy and vague, the article notes.

    Michael Botticelli, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, is working to standardize federal communication about addiction and get rid of negative terms. “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,” he said. “Words have to change so attitudes change.”

    Botticelli notes that calling addiction a “habit” is not accurate, making it sound as trivial as nail biting. Calling people “clean” when they do not take drugs implies they are dirty when they do use drugs, he said. Urine samples that show evidence of drug use are often referred to as “dirty urine.”

    “I can’t think of a more telling example of judgmental terminology,” he said. “We don’t say for a diabetic whose blood sugar spikes that they have a ‘dirty blood sugar.’”


    February 2016