Talking About Addiction | National Recovery Month

Changing the Words We Use to Discuss Addiction

National Recovery Month 

Each September, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) sponsors and promotes National Recovery Month—a month-long event to educate the public about addiction recovery. This year, the theme is eradicating the stigma associated with addiction. 

Addiction Recovery Month

Talking About Addiction

Political correctness and ever-changing language sensitivities are often at the forefront of public conversations recently, but there’s still one group that few rush to defend: people suffering from an addiction. We’re called drug addicts by the media, junkies and drunks by strangers, and even worse by people we know. These words fail to distinguish between the person, the disease, and the behaviors resulting from illness. But no one bats an eye when they are thrown around. Why? 

Because substance use disorder (SUD), the proper term for addiction, is still viewed as a moral failing. Many people still believe it’s a lack of willpower, not a diagnosable mental disorder.

The Mayo Clinic defines SUD as “a disease that affects a person’s brain and behavior and leads to an inability to control the use of a legal or illegal drug or medication.”

As a society, we’re understanding and sympathetic when similar definitions describe a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder. None of us believe the person afflicted really wants to flip the light switch 37 times before exiting the bathroom. We realize something unobservable is causing the behavior. SUD is a diagnosable condition, and we need to start treating it and the people suffering from it, the same as we treat someone suffering from depression, an anxiety disorder, or OCD.

People with substance use disorder—almost universally—have profound feelings of shame related to their use and actions while using. The language we, as a society, use to talk about addiction encourages feelings of shame and embarrassment. Some remain unconvinced that addiction is not a personal weakness, and my goal is not to persuade the unpersuadable. It is to educate others about the correct words to use when discussing addiction. As Hunter Biden told an ABC News reporter, “say it nicer.” Regardless of what you think of him or the 46th president, he has a point.  

talking about addiction

Stigma Of Addiction

To reduce a person to their lowest point and a label frames the person as someone in need of punishment rather than treatment. It blames people for an illness and ignores genetic and environmental factors. And feeds the stigma. 

A World Health Organization study recently showed drug addiction as the most stigmatized “social problem” on Earth. Think about that. Substance use disorder carries more stigma than homelessness and poverty, and none of us need a lesson on how poorly society treats people experiencing homelessness and the less fortunate. 

According to Johns Hopkins, a significant number of studies show that “stigma is persistent, pervasive, and rooted in the belief that addiction is a personal choice reflecting a lack of willpower and a moral failing.” Levels of extremely high exist in the public at large and within industries where members interact with people suffering from an addiction, including the health care professionals. Research also reveals that stigma harms the health and well-being of people with SUD and impedes the quality of care received in clinical settings. 

In the 12 months ending in April 2022, the U.S. topped 100,000 overdose deaths for the second and indeed not the last time. Many of us do recover, and I’m proof of that. But 90% of people who need treatment do not receive it. The stigma surrounding substance use is undoubtedly part of why some do not seek the lifesaving care they desperately require. We can change that.

It starts with changing the language used to talk about addiction and the people suffering from it. Instead of an addict, say someone suffering from substance use disorder. Instead of alcoholic, say someone with alcohol use disorder. Start using supportive, nonjudgmental words that promote understanding and compassion.  We are not junkies, drunks, and crackheads. We’re human beings and you already know us.