How We Talk About Addiction

Addiction can be hard to talk about and understand. This causes the public to shy away, therefore, experts have begun working on an “addiction-ary.” At the forefront of implementing the new language are clinicians who have introduced new words and phrases to replace the old ones. Slowing down the reform of new views and perceptions about addiction is the outdated, existing language itself.

If we change the way we speak about addiction, would this create a new perception in the way the world views those in recovery? Simply put, Yes.  But unfortunately, until recent times, when the term addiction is brought up in conversation one might tend to instantly think of someone with a moral failure. This could be the result of the unconscious programming of our thought from the way addiction is spoken about in general.

We can begin by changing our language about addiction to help eliminate the negative stigma associated with substance and alcohol use disorder. Hopefully, the world will begin to view addiction as an illness rather than a moral deficiency.

Reasons for the Language Reform

Individuals with substance use disorder have been shrouded in stigma due to the current terminologies used. “Addicts” have been perceived to be unpredictable, dangerous and “at fault” for their conditions. They are often thought of as having a moral failing instead of a medical condition. The public and even medical staff, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, continue to use language that produces a view of necessary punishment rather than treatment for patients’’ conditions. Establishing a new method of communication will help promote a more compassionate environment where patients with substance use disorder can be treated more like patients with other diseases.

According to the American Journal of Public Health, the word “abuse” has been used as a moral condemnation since the 14th century. For decades, many people with substance use disorder remained isolated and have been afraid to ask for help. Stigmas attached to words such as “abuse” and “addict” have been a factor in keeping people with substance use disorder from admitting they have an issue. Worldwide reform for change in the treatment of substance use disorder has been hindered due to these stigmas and the increase of people affected with it. Clinicians say the impact of the language of addiction is causing a large public health concern in most English-speaking countries.

In the medical community, several doctors leading the push to change the language of addiction are Sara Wakeman and Richard Salz. Others at the forefront of this movement include John Kelly from Harvard Medical School. An article in the Alcohol Treatment Quarterly, written by Kelly, Wakeman, and Salz, indicates that medically accurate,  person-first language must be adopted. The article states that the stigma infused current language reduces the quality of care those with substance use disorder receive.

“A doctor would never tell a patient suffering from diabetes that their blood was dirty with glucose.” Wakeman stated in an interview with the Harvard Gazette, “We should ask, Is this a term we would use for another medical condition? If the answer is no, we shouldn’t use it.”

To remove the stigma-based language that affects the treatment of substance use disorder Kelly went even further. He created an addiction-ary aimed at unifying medical staff first, then, over time, the public.

A Look at the ‘Addiction-ary’

A web-tool called the Addiction-ary is a glossary of addiction-related terms that includes many words that come with a bold “stigma-alert” warning.

“If we want addiction de-stigmatized, we need a language that is unified and really accurately portrays the true nature of what we’ve learned about these conditions over the last 25 years.” Kelly told the Harvard Gazette. “This goes beyond political correctness. It’s not just a matter of being nice.”

When the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, was published it started to recognize the new language. But in its early days the language was very basic and broad. As time progressed, those driving the movement have identified that not only must the language change for proper communication and treatment, but also the specifics that brought together similarities, differences, and severity across all substances. From around the world, others have joined in the push for this Addiction-ary that promotes a person-first language.

Let us look at some of the terms to avoid and why: Terms such as addict, user, junkie, alcoholic, and drunk. These terms infer that a person “is” the problem, rather than they “have” the problem. These terms also produce elicit negative associations, punitive attitudes, and individual blame.

Looking Ahead

A better universal language must be implemented to reduce the current stigmas for the world to become more effective in treating those with substance use disorder. For treatments to improve, medical staff must work together to address substance use disorder rather than a belief of moral deficiency. More usage of the Addiction-ary by key personnel in the medical field will bring new beliefs that will be trusted.

People such as Wakeman and Kelly are diligently working to continue to update the Addiction-ary and to present this new information everywhere they go. They hope this will reduce the increasing number of people with substance use disorder by providing more suitable care to those in need. The main goal of the new language is to bring about new and more appropriate perceptions about substance abuse.

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