Addiction Talk: Using Words Free From Stigma & Shame

The words we use can shape how we perceive the people, places, and things we talk about. When speaking about addiction and the people impacted by it, the words and phrases we choose make a difference, as certain language can perpetuate stigma and shame.1

Keep reading to learn more about how we can help stop addiction-related stigma, recommended terms to use and avoid, and other addiction support resources.

Addiction Stigma

Stigma refers to negative attitudes or beliefs about others based on certain characteristics, such as a group a person belongs to, where they live, activities they engage in, and conditions they have.2

For example, many people have harmful, outdated misconceptions about addiction, including the idea that people with substance use disorder (SUD) are: 2

  • Dangerous
  • To blame for their condition.
  • Incapable of seeking help.

In other words, some still consider addiction a “choice” or “moral failing,” even though research has shown it is a complex and chronic mental health condition.2

Stigma related to SUD may stem from fear or misunderstandings about the disease. This, coupled with the continued use of stigmatizing language, can lead to adverse outcomes.3

How Stigma Affects Those With Substance Use Disorder

Addiction is one of the most stigmatized mental health disorders, both in the U.S. and around the world.4 This not only affects the person with SUD, but it can also influence societal views about addiction.

Studies show that stigma can:

  • Increase a person’s reluctance toward seeking treatment.2
  • Negatively impact the medical care that people with SUD receive, due to provider perceptions.1,4
  • Trigger “self-stigma,” or the process of internalizing stigmatized beliefs.1

This can lead to poorer treatment outcomes (e.g., leaving rehab too soon), diminished self-esteem, and reduced hope for recovery.1,4

More than 10% of Americans aged 12 and older, who were identified as needing addiction treatment but did not get it, said they didn’t seek care because they were concerned about what others would think. Nearly 15% were worried it would negatively affect their job, and an estimated 9.9% did not want anyone to know they needed addiction treatment.5

What We Can Do to Destigmatize Addiction

We can help destigmatize the disease of addiction by carefully choosing our language when we talk about it with others.6

Deciding to use compassionate and respectful words and phrases—free from judgment and shame—can possibly result in decreased addiction-related stigma and misconceptions.1

Here are some initial steps you can take:

  • Use “person-first language.” Person-first or person-centered language focuses on the individual instead of their medical condition. Person-centered language (e.g., a “person with a substance use disorder”) can minimize stereotypes and stigma by suggesting that the individual has a condition that can be addressed.4
  • Keep in mind that addiction is a mental health condition that should be acknowledged and discussed just as other medical illnesses are.2
  • Understand the difference between substance use and substance use disorder. The latter should only be used to describe people with a formal diagnosis of SUD.4
  • If someone you know uses substances and/or has a substance use disorder, you can ask their preference regarding how others refer to them.3

Addiction Terms to Use, Terms to Avoid, and Why

Below you will find a list of terms and non-stigmatizing alternatives to consider when talking about substance use or misuse, addiction, and people with substance use disorders.*

Avoid: Addict

Use Instead: Person with substance use disorder

Why: Uses person-centered language that focuses on the person having a condition rather than the person being equated to their condition.2

Avoid: Alcoholic

Use Instead: Person with alcohol use disorder

Why: Uses person-centered language that is less stigmatizing and avoids reducing a person’s character to their alcohol use.6

Avoid: Drunk

Use Instead: Person who misuses alcohol or engages in unhealthy alcohol use

Why: Uses nonjudgmental, person-centered language that does not place blame on the person.2

Avoid: User

Use Instead: Person with [substance] use disorder; Person with [substance] addiction

Why: Uses person-centered language that prioritizes the person instead of their SUD. Substitute [substance] with the name of the substance that the person uses. For example, if the person uses cocaine you could say “a person with cocaine use disorder” or “a person who uses cocaine.”2

Avoid: Substance or drug abuser

Use Instead: Person with a substance use disorder

Why: Uses person-centered language that minimizes negative biases and attitudes.2

Avoid: Junkie

Use Instead: Person in active use

Why: Represents nonjudgmental, person-centered language that avoids describing a person based on their substance use.2

Avoid: Reformed addict

Use Instead: Person who previously used drugs or substances

Why: Uses person-centered language that reduces negative judgments and avoids stigmatizing labels like “addict.”2

Avoid: Former addict

Use Instead: Person in recovery or person in long-term recovery

Why: Uses person-centered language that reduces negative judgments and avoids stigmatizing labels like “addict.”2

Avoid: Abuse

Use Instead: Use (for illicit substances); misuse or used other than prescribed (for prescription medications)

Why: “Abuse” has a negative connotation and is associated with punishment. The term “misuse” can help reduce negative judgment. When someone uses prescription medications in a way other than prescribed, this is an example of misuse.2

Avoid: Habit

Use Instead: Substance use disorder, drug addiction

Why: Addiction is a medical condition, and referring to it as a habit incorrectly suggests that substance use is a choice.2

Avoid: Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)

Use Instead: Pharmacotherapy; medication for substance use disorder; addiction medicine

Why: The alternative language above is consistent with how medications used in treating other health conditions are discussed. MAT can be misinterpreted as suggesting that a pharmacological intervention should be temporary or supplemental.2

Avoid: Opioid substitution replacement therapy

Use Instead: Opioid agonist therapy; medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD)

Why:Opioid substitution replacement” is incorrect, as it implies that medications simply substitute or replace one substance with another.2

Avoid: Clean

Use Instead: Testing negative (for toxicology results); being in remission or recovery (for non-toxicology uses); not drinking or taking drugs; not currently or actively using drugs

Why: Mirrors clinical, non-stigmatizing language used for other medical conditions.2

Avoid: Dirty

Use Instead: Testing positive (for toxicology results); person who uses substances or drugs (for non-toxicology uses)

Why: Mirrors clinical, non-stigmatizing language used for other medical conditions.2

Avoid: Slip, Lapse, Relapse

Use Instead: A return to use

Why: Uses non-judgmental language without eliciting harmful associations.7

Avoid: Detox

Use Instead: Withdrawal management; management of withdrawal symptoms

Why: Detox implies that a person needs to be “cleansed.”8

Avoid: Addicted baby, Crack baby

Use Instead: Baby born to someone who used substances during pregnancy; Baby showing signs of withdrawal from prenatal drug exposure; Newborn exposed to substances

Why: Person-centered language that is clinically accurate, as babies may be exposed to substances but are not born with addiction.7

Avoid: Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) baby

Use Instead: Baby with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS); Baby with neonatal opioid withdrawal

Why: Uses person-centered, non-stigmatizing language, as is recommended for other medical conditions.8

Find Help for Addiction at River Oaks

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, River Oaks Treatment Center is here to help. Our inpatient addiction treatment facility near Tampa offers different types of addiction treatment designed to meet the individual needs of each patient.

To learn more about our programs, rehab admissions, paying for addiction treatment, and using insurance to pay for rehab, contact us at .

You can also check whether we accept your insurance by filling out this quick and confidential .

Call us to get the supportive care you deserve and begin the recovery journey today.

*Note: As terminology evolves, we are committed to evolving with it. While our website does contain some older terminology based on how people look for and find information, we are consistently working to update our language to reflect changes in the addiction treatment landscape.

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