Addiction comes in many shapes and styles. It can be evident in some people or very subtle in others. Some people even find a way to become what’s known as “high-functioning addicts.” However, can changing the language we use to discuss addiction make a difference in recovery? For people with substance use disorders, changing language and words to talk about the disease can help break the stigma behind addiction

The relationship between language and stigma is a closely-linked one. If language is carelessly used, it can reinforce the stigma that, in turn, can force someone into addictive behavior and prevent them from seeking help. 

Luckily, language and stigma are two sides of the same coin. Negative language can reinforce stigma; conversely, positive language can break the stigma and allow individuals with addiction a chance to seek help. Let’s discuss what you can do to create a more favorable environment for individuals with addiction.

Language and Addiction Stigma

For most physical illnesses and diseases, recovery can be as simple as making your way to a doctor, obtaining a prescription, and following the doctor’s instructions. For individuals with substance use disorders (SUD), asking for help can be difficult because of addiction’s stigma. 

Stigma is reinforced by the language used both by the person with SUD and the people around them. In more traditional communities, addiction is seen as a failure on the patient. It’s supposedly an indicator of the patient’s lack of discipline and irresponsibility. Language and stigma go hand in hand because of the influence language can have on people’s impressions and thoughts.

When a person with SUD is treated as undisciplined, irresponsible, or deserving of their suffering because of “karma,” they can feel like they are beyond treatment or don’t deserve help at all. Research from the 1970s has shown that substance use is often tied to stress, impulse, and learned helplessness, or when someone accepts those unpleasant stressors in their life are out of their control.

Recovery Terminology to Learn & Use

One of the most significant changes a person can make to their language is to utilize recovery terminology, or language explicitly tailored to individuals undergoing recovery from substance use. The best example of recovery terminology is known as person-first language. Person-first language is a verbal framework that shifts the focus from the disorder to the person suffering from the disease. 

For example, saying “addict” instead of “a person with substance use disorder” makes no distinction between the person and the substance use. “Addict” blends them into one concept. By instead using “a person with substance use disorder,” we differentiate between the patient and the substance use itself. It shows the patient that they can separate themselves from the substance use. And it acknowledges them as more than a disease.

When a patient is called an “addict”, the person becomes the problem instead of having a problem. This can elicit feelings of guilt and responsibility, causing the patient to feel like their substance use is a part of their identity, which can impede recovery and impair their ability to seek treatment. 

Another word to watch out for is “habit”, which is often used to describe the behavior of the one using. “Habit” can come across as casual, even undermining the seriousness of the substance use. It can also imply voluntary behavior on the part of the person with SUD as if using were as simple as choosing to use and stopping were as simple as choosing to stop.

In this case, substance use disorder or drug addiction can be used instead of “habit,” as these terms more accurately convey the seriousness of the substance use and the condition of the person with SUD. If a person doesn’t feel like they’re being taken seriously, they’re less likely to take themselves seriously.

How to Help Someone in Recovery

If you know someone recovering from substance use, they can be acutely aware of how they’re perceived by the people around them, especially by people they care about. It begins with the language you use around them and their language around themselves.

You must use positive reinforcement and person-first language throughout their recovery. This is because substance use is a form of escapism that those with SUD can easily slip into as a means of protecting themselves from high-stress situations. If you continuously show support for their path to recovery, they are more likely to complete that journey.

People in recovery are normal people, just like everyone else. They just happened to go through difficult times and tried to weather them the best way possible. The most significant thing those in recovery need is support, and you can provide that simply by using considerate language.