Less Stigma & Shame: Changing How We Talk About Addiction

Words are powerful. The language we use can reinforce negative stereotypes and cause harm. Conversely, language can also reduce stigma, correct misinformation, and mend unhelpful attitudes about people with addiction.1

This page will discuss stigmatizing language regarding addiction, why it’s a problem, and provide examples of words and phrases to use or avoid.

As terminology evolves, Laguna is 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.

How Does Stigma Affect People with Addiction?

Stigma is a negative attitude toward a group of people with specific characteristics. It often stems from antiquated beliefs and misinformation. For example, people with addictions may be unfairly perceived as lazy, threatening, weak, or selfish.1 This is largely based on the misconception that people with addictions just don’t want to stop their substance use or that they lack the willpower to quit.

In truth, substance use disorder (SUD)—the clinical term for addiction—is a chronic mental health condition.2,3 SUD is characterized by the compulsive use of substances despite significant harm caused to someone’s life.2 It’s not someone’s choice to suffer from addiction, nor does it reflect a moral failing.1 Often, people need treatment to recover from addiction.3

Harmful attitudes about SUD can greatly exacerbate the damage caused by the condition.4

For one, they greatly influence the way people treat others. People with addiction may face constant judgment from family, friends, their community, and even healthcare professionals—many of the people one would usually turn to for help.1

Stigma can also profoundly affect the way people with addiction feel about themselves. The resulting shame can prevent them from getting the help they need because they feel unworthy of treatment or they are too embarrassed to seek it out.1,4

Stigma can:1,4

  • Prevent someone from entering an addiction treatment program or lead them to exit treatment early. The worry about judgment from others is a common barrier between someone and getting the help they need.6
  • Worsen psychological problems that contribute to one’s addiction. Many people with addiction suffer from other mental illnesses at some point in their lives and vice versa. In fact, around 25% of people with substance use disorder have a serious mental illness.5 Effects of stigma on someone with mental illness include low self-esteem, problems in interpersonal relationships, difficulties at work, and more.
  • Make someone feel isolated, worsening treatment outcomes.

The sections below will focus on improving the way we speak about addiction to reduce this stigma.

Changing How We Talk About Addiction

Here are some general tips for using non-stigmatizing language:1,3

  • Use “person-first” terms when referring to someone with a substance use problem. For example, consider using the term “person with addiction” rather than “addict.” The former emphasizes the fact that people are more than just the mental health condition they suffer from.
  • Use evidence-based language when discussing addiction. Speak about addiction the way you might for another disease. For example, referring to substance use as a “habit” minimizes the condition and undermines someone’s efforts to enter recovery.
  • When talking about addiction, remember that addiction is a medical condition, not a moral failing. Simply quitting substance use is not always possible without treatment.

Examples of Stigmatizing Terms and Alternatives

Let’s go over some common stigmatizing terms, explain why they should be replaced, and provide non-stigmatizing terms one can use in place of them.

Terms to avoid: “Drug abuse” or “alcohol abuse.”

Why? The word “abuse” was found to have negative connotations of judgment and punishment.1

Use instead:

  • “Drug use” or “substance use” for illicit drugs and alcohol.
  • “Drug misuse” or “use other than prescribed” for prescription drugs.

Terms to avoid: “Clean” or “dirty” (sometimes used to describe results of a toxicology screen or someone that has quit or continues to use substances).

Why? These terms may imply negative cognitions, are medically inaccurate, and are inconsistent with the way one would discuss test results for other medical conditions.1

Use instead:

  • “Tested negative” or “tested positive” in a screen for drugs or alcohol.
  • “In recovery” to refer to someone that is no longer drinking or using drugs, or “in active addiction” for someone that has not quit drinking or using drugs.

Terms to avoid: “Alcoholic,” “drunk,” “junkie,” or “user.”

Why? As mentioned earlier, person-first language is usually best when talking about someone with an addiction. These words also have negative associations with blame and punishment.1

Use instead: “Person with alcohol addiction,” “person with opioid use disorder,” “person that uses drugs.”

Terms to avoid: “Opioid substitution therapy” and “medication-assisted treatment (MAT).”

Why? “Opioid substitution” reinforces the misconception that medications for opioid use disorder just substitute one addiction for another. “MAT” implies that medication only has temporary uses in addiction treatment, when it may be needed in long-term capacities, the same way other psychiatric medications are prescribed.1

Use instead: “Medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD),” “medication for a substance use disorder,” “pharmacotherapy.”

Terms to avoid: “Former addict” or “reformed addict.”

Why? Both terms minimize addiction as something that can simply be cured or something that someone can get over through willpower.1 Addiction is a chronic, relapsing condition, not unlike diabetes or heart disease.7

Use instead: “Person in recovery” or “person in remission.”

Get Help for Addiction at Laguna

Addiction is a devastating disease, but it is treatable. Effective treatment utilizes evidence-based practices like:3

Laguna Treatment Center provides the above and more through varying levels of addiction treatment like medical detox, residential treatment, and aftercare planning.

Call to begin treatment today. Our compassionate admissions navigators can also answer your questions about what to expect in rehab, using insurance to cover addiction treatment and other payment options.

The Best Place to Recover in Orange County
We are here to help you get sober and learn how to stay that way. Laguna Treatment Hospital is located in Orange County within easy reach of the entire Los Angeles metro. We are the premier chemical dependency recovery hospital in the OC. We offer safe medical detox, mental health support, and wellness programs.