Stigmatizing Language Surrounding Addiction and Why It's Harmful
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Stigma is an attitude or behavior that discriminates against someone else. It shames, humiliates, and belittles people. It is dehumanizing and highly damaging. Stigma is reinforced through stigmatizing language. Many people amplify stigma without truly meaning to. This can be from a lack of awareness or education and not from a place of anger or dislike. 

When it comes to addiction, there is a stigma surrounding it that suggests that because someone is struggling with this problem, they are a bad person or that they deserve what they are struggling with. This is simply not true. By spreading awareness, we can help to decrease stigmatizing language surrounding addiction in our society. 

Understanding What Stigma Surrounding Addiction Looks Like 

Many people falsely believe that addiction is someone’s fault and something that is in their control. This false belief is often what drives stigma. Stigma toward those who struggle with substance use can come in various ways. It may be through decreasing someone’s value as a human being because of what they are going through. It could be associating someone’s identity with their substance misuse instead of who they really are as a person. This could come in the form of acting with prejudice against someone because of their disorder. Finally, it can come in the form of language and labels that portray this individual negatively. 

Understanding the Dangers of Stigma 

Stigma is an incredibly dangerous thing. It can take a significant toll on someone’s mental health and make them feel devalued and as if their life doesn’t matter. Stigma can destroy self-esteem and lead to anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. It can also cause a person who desperately needs help to put off seeking treatment because they are afraid about how they will be received. They may be afraid that they will face judgment and ridicule and that nobody will care about them. Stigma can cost people their lives because they don’t believe there is hope for them to get better or ever be treated with respect and dignity. 

Stigma can also affect a person’s quality of medical care. An individual may seek professional treatment either for their addiction or for a separate problem and be overlooked and not taken seriously. Medical providers may simply see the person’s addiction and not who they are as a person and use this as a reason not to give them the same level of care that they would typically provide. A patient can sense this, and when it happens once, it may cause them not to seek help the next time they’re struggling with a health problem. This can seriously put their life in jeopardy. Nobody should have to go through life suffering when there are treatment methods readily available to them. 

Understanding What Stigmatizing Langauge Looks Like 

The stigmatizing language surrounding addiction is not only hurtful and dehumanizing but also completely inaccurate and wrong. This type of language puts a person’s addiction before their identity, effectively stripping away their humanity and their dignity. It is important to use person-first language. This involves acknowledging someone as a person before referencing their substance use disorder (SUD) or other problems they may have. It is a way of respecting their dignity as a human being. 

It’s important to remember person-first language when we use terms or labels when talking about those struggling with addiction. Some examples include:

  • Instead of using the word “addict,” say “someone with a substance use disorder.”
  • Instead of using the term “druggie,” say “someone who struggles with drug misuse.”
  • Instead of using the term “alcoholic” or “drunk,” say “someone who struggles with alcohol misuse.” 
  • When referencing someone struggling with opioid use, instead of using the term “user,” say “someone with an OUD (opioid use disorder).
  • When referencing someone struggling with drugs, instead of saying “junkie,” you can say someone who is in “active use.”

Never use the terms “clean” or “dirty” when referencing someone’s substance use. This is because these terms imply that someone in active use is dirty in nature. Instead, you can say “in recovery” or “in active use.” Another option would be to say “testing negative” or “testing positive.” You also don’t want to use the word” habit” because it lessens the severity of what substance misuse really is. It is more than just a bad habit. It also insinuates that addiction is something that a person chooses and is in control of. Instead, say “substance use disorder.” 

In some situations, you’ll want to reframe your entire sentence. 

For example, instead of saying, “Substance use affects Americans at any age,” you can say, “Americans of any age can be affected by substance use.” 

Stigma is an attitude or behavior that discriminates against someone else. It dehumanizes them and strips them of their dignity. Stigma is reinforced through stigmatizing language. It is very dangerous for many reasons. It can make a person who is struggling with substance use to feel as if they don’t matter and are a bad person. It can also make them avoid seeking the necessary treatment because they are afraid that they will be judged and ridiculed. Stigma can even affect the standard of health care that an individual receives. We can help eradicate stigma by correcting stigmatizing language. This involves replacing derogatory terms and using person-first language. This is a way to put a person before their substance use. If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance use disorder, our team at The Ho Tai Way can help. Call (714) 581-3974 today to learn more.