For those of us who are trying to fight stigma by talking more openly about addiction, it’s important to be aware of words that can actually have the opposite effect.
Even though most American adults use drugs recreationally (hello, alcohol) there is tremendous prejudice toward people who use other drugs, especially those of us who struggle with addiction.
Over the last ten years in western Pennsylvania, many eyes have been opened to the fact that good people use drugs, good people become addicted, and yes, good people sometimes die of overdose. It’s been an incredibly painful lesson for an unbelievable number of families in our region.
It’s past time to open up honest conversations about drug use and addiction. Pushing these conversations into the shadows has perpetuated shame, stigma, and misinformation.
If you’re with me so far, great! What I want to talk about now is how to open up those conversations, and emphasize the need to be careful with the words we use to talk about ourselves and people we know.
Research shows that if I call myself a “substance abuser” or an “addict” you’re more likely to think that my problems are my fault and that I should be punished for my behavior. In contrast, if I call myself a “person with addiction” you’re more likely to see me as someone who struggles with a health condition. If I call myself “clean,” you think of me as having been dirty. If I call myself “a person in long-term recovery,” you see me as a positive person in your community.
This is a call for all of us to adjust the way we talk about addiction in our public life. A simple rule of thumb is to use person-first language, like “person with addiction” or “person in recovery.” While we should certainly feel free to call ourselves “addicts” or “alcoholics” in 12-step rooms, we need to talk differently in public.
This may seem silly or trite, but I want to remind you of the tremendously prejudiced society in which we all live. If our world were different, these choices around language wouldn’t matter so much. But for those of us who are trying to fight stigma by talking more openly about addiction, it’s important to be aware that the words we use can actually have the opposite effect, by perpetuating deep-rooted negative beliefs about people who use drugs.
Let’s be real. At this point, we have all been touched by widespread drug use, addiction, and overdose. And we know in our hearts that good people use drugs. It’s your kid, your friend, it’s you. We should use caring words when we talk about these issues because we care about the people who are affected by them.