People with medical conditions need a supportive network to help them recover. Substance use disorder is just as much a valid condition as someone who is recovering from cancer. Any chronic medical condition requires support from a recovery community. Unfortunately, not all health conditions receive the same level of support. People with a substance use disorder can experience social isolation, stigma, and shaming, all of which are barriers to recovery.
Research consistently proves substance misuse disorder to be a chronic brain disease, and entirely manageable with medical treatment. However, due to negative stigma surrounding addiction, individuals affected are often labeled as having a “moral failing” or a “character flaw.” Because of our culture’s stigmatization of substance use disorders, only 1 in 10 affected Americans receive much needed treatment to overcome this struggle. Our duty is to allow our family members, neighbors and friends to heal is to use language that helps other identify substance misuse disorder as the health issue it is.
A Colorado woman named Alma, grieves for the loss of her 22-year-old brother, Ola to opioid overdose. After a traumatic childhood, teenage Ola turned to prescription drugs to cope. After initially being a high achiever, he started causing problems at school and with law enforcement, leaving his family struggling to know how to support him. Their attempts bereded and pressured him to get sober, causing him to feel shameful and worthless because of his addiction. Alma reflects, “In hindsight, I think we could’ve done more to reduce the shame my brother was feeling. I wish we’d let him know he was not alone in his struggles.” Compassionate language prompts greater acceptance for individuals seeking care for an issue beyond their individual control.
Stigma deters people from seeking treatment. According to The Drug Policy Alliance, “No physical or psychiatric condition is more associated with social disapproval and discrimination than substance dependence.” Stigma is a mark of dishonor, disgrace, and difference that depersonalizes people. Having friends and family members that display this discrimination can be particularly painful. One way we can fight against stigma is with the language that we use. Using “person-first language” means referring to people as just that – people, and not solely their medical condition. Instead of calling an individual an “addict”, reducing their identity to something they struggle with, they should be referred to as “an individual with substance use disorder”.
This change in language is important in our daily lives as community members, as well as for medical professionals. In a Center for Addiction Medicine study, it was found that patients who were referred to as “substance abusers” were seen to be at fault and deserving of punishment. Meanwhile, those who were described as “having a substance use disorder” were more deserving of help and treatment. A simple change in language led to completely different perceptions by medical and clinical professionals.
Language frames how the public perceives substance use and recovery, and can also affect a person’s self-image and their confidence in their ability to change. Most importantly, language intentionally or not, creates stigma. Stigma essentially takes away an individual’s personal qualities and identity. It is harmful, distressing, and marginalizing. By intentionally choosing non-stigmatizing language, we can begin to dismantle the negative stereotypes of bad, shameful, and dirty, associated with addiction.
Rats and Social Acceptance
The first revolutionary information about addiction being more than the drugs comes from the fascinating Rat Park Study. Isolated rats given two drinking bottles, both with water but only one laced with cocaine, almost always chose the cocaine water until they overdosed and died. However, once placed in a “rat park”, or a setting where the rats could socially interact with peers, as well as given access to the two drinking bottles, the animals consistently chose social interaction. This illustrates a huge leap for the substance use disorder field, demonstrating the massive role environment plays in the choice to use substances. This taught us that in immediate and powerful ways, drugs fill an immediate need, and transforms into a compulsion instead of a choice. Drugs transport us away from loneliness and isolation, something faced by all rats and humans alike.
In 2018, researchers gained additional insight when giving the option for rats addicted to heroin to engage socially with another rat or gain access to a drug. The study then introduced a negative reinforcement of an electric shock if the rat chose social interaction, causing most subjects to return to the drug access rather than be harmed by negative stimuli. This illustrates the difficult path that humans with this disorder often face as they attempt to leave behind certain behaviors and adopt positive ones. While a rat chooses society over drugs, when social interaction is punished, they choose drugs over society. And we are punishing people by stigmatizing them with insensitive language, driving them to choose drugs!
Using Person-First Language
Person-first language is proven to reduce substance use disorder stigma and improve treatment outcomes. This choice reinforces the fact that a condition or illness is only one aspect of who the person is, NOT the defining characteristic. Labeling a people by their illness erases individual differences in experience, depersonalizing them. Person first language can empower someone to choose prosocial options over drugs and help them recover from their disease.
The root of our concern is whether or not affected individuals can and do access quality treatment and care. Person-first language focuses on the medical nature of substance use disorders and treatment while promoting the recovery process. Additionally, it avoids perpetuating negative stereotypes and biases. By choosing to rethink and reshape our language, we allow people with an addiction to more easily regain their self-esteem and more comfortably seek treatment. Other benefits include allowing lawmakers to appropriate funding, doctors to deliver better treatment, insurers to increase coverage of evidence-based treatment and helping the public understand this is as a medical condition.
You can reduce stigma and provide much needed comfort and assistance to people working to overcome a disease. You can help reverse harmful stereotypes of people with substance use disorders. The way we talk about substance use disorders greatly impacts those in the process of recovery.
How to Help
That being said, how can we alter our vocabulary to include person-first language when talking about addiction?
The Office of National Drug Control Policy recommends these terms and phrases as a starting point. Familiarize yourself with them and start incorporating them in your everyday conversations.
By using person-first language like this, we can make great progress toward reducing the deadly stigma associated with addiction. By changing our words and attitudes towards people with a substance use disorder, we can effect positive change. We have the power to refrain from dehumanizing others through person-first language. By reshaping our language, we can create an atmosphere of recovery, centered around respect, tolerance and healing.