At Sojourner House, we help families that have been impacted by addiction – or, as it’s clinically referred to, substance use disorder. While “addiction” is still a very common term in general conversations, “substance abuse disorder” has been the preferred medical terminology since 2013, as detailed in the American Psychiatric Association’s guidelines.
The terminology and language we use to discuss substance abuse are extremely powerful. The right language can help to lay the groundwork for understanding substance abuse as a complex, chronic, treatable disease from which patients can recover, the same as any other medical condition.
The wrong language, however, can stigmatize the disease, as well as the person suffering from it. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the stigma surrounding substance use and substance abuse disorder often stems from antiquated and inaccurate beliefs that addiction is a moral failing. Those beliefs, and the stigma associated with them, create problems for those in recovery.
Stigma Interferes with Access to Medical Care
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that when disorder sufferers feel stigmatized, they become less likely to seek treatment. Often, the individual dealing with the disorder internalizes the negative wording and feelings behind the original stigma. When that stigma is internalized, it decreases a person’s self-esteem and makes it difficult to overcome their addiction. Without confidence in their worth, and without the hope that their illness is treatable, people become less interested in getting help. Sadly, they often choose to hide their illness instead.
Stigma Impacts the Quality of Medical Care
If one is able to access care, stigmatizing language can also negatively influence how healthcare providers perceive their patients. In fact, studies have shown that doctors were more likely to assign blame to the individual when referred to as a “substance abuser” versus a “person with substance use disorder.” Sadly, when stigma creeps into a medical professional’s chart, it can impact the care they provide.
Stigma Prevents Social Connection and Support
Unfortunately, the blame and shame associated with addiction are not limited to a few medical offices. For decades, addiction was commonly considered to be a moral failing. Ongoing stereotyping of this illness can lead to the loved ones of a patient feeling pity, fear, anger, and a desire for social distance from the patient. This is especially unfortunate because research has found that social support is vital to sustained recovery for individuals with substance use disorders.
Language Can Destigmatize Substance Abuse Disorders
The good news is that after decades of research and advocacy, knowledge about the impact language has on substance abuse treatment has grown tremendously. More and more practitioners and community members recognize that terms such as “addict” and “abuser” are inappropriate; they place blame on sick patients and carry a stigma that suggests that the suffering person deserves to be punished.
Experts have pushed for person-first language to replace these outdated terms. “Person with a substance use disorder” or “person who is in recovery” are two just examples of ways to speak about patients with substance use disorder.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse has published a lengthy chart on terms to avoid, terms to use, and why these recommendations have been made. At the core of each recommendation is the idea that all patients are more than just their illness. This applies to all medical specialties, and language is an important tool that we all can use to ensure more people see substance abuse care the same way.