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.’”

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    Jim Bale

    February 20, 2016 at 11:10 PM

    This new paradigm shift that seeks to neuter language and thought is a slippery slope. As professionals, and as an intelligent general public at large, we can separate the person from the behavior without sanitizing the concept of drug dependence and addiction. You can call a trash man a sanitation engineer, but it doesn’t change who he is or what he does. Nor does it elevate or devalue the man. To whitewash drug addiction and the many unintended consequences that accompany it only serves to make it more socially accepted. When anything is more socially accepted, it always becomes more widely practiced. We then perpetuate the very behaviors seek to extinguish.

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    February 11, 2016 at 3:14 PM

    Then I guess we’re going to have to tell the 5,000 or so people in our area who attend NA that by calling themselves “addicts” they are further stigmatizing themselves & bringing shame down on others.. Yep, can’t wait to tell J with 25yrs clean, S w 30yts clean, etc… People are dying on the street where I live & were spending time in this? Please… GMAB

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