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  • Why Words Matter For The Language Of Addiction

    Therapy Session-Why Words Matter For The Language Of Addiction

    People with drug addiction (also called substance use disorder) face a significant amount of stigma. Stigma refers to judgment based on a personal characteristic. For example, addiction is often judged as a moral failure rather than a medical condition. 

    Every day, people contribute to the stigma of addiction by using stigmatizing language. Here’s what you should know about these harmful words and how to stop using them. 

    Why Words Matter

    Language plays an essential role in our lives. While words might seem simple, they strongly influence the way we view ourselves and others. 

    For instance, when describing someone with addiction, many people use terms like “addict” or “substance abuser.” These words cause harm because they reduce a person to their disease. 

    It also implies the person is the problem, when in reality they have a problem. That’s why it’s best to swap these terms for person-first language, such as “a person with substance use disorder.” 

    People Feel Accepted, Not Ashamed

    Using non-stigmatizing language might just seem like a polite gesture. However, it’s much more important than that. When you avoid stigmatizing words, you help create an environment where people with addiction feel accepted instead of shamed. 

    The less shame they feel, the more likely they are to seek treatment. In other words, the language you use could help save someone’s life. 

    Quality Of Addiction Treatment

    Language can also impact the quality of addiction treatment someone receives. Studies show that healthcare providers who use terms like “addict” are more likely to judge patients with addiction. As a result, they may provide a lower quality of care.

    Due to these effects, addiction recovery advocates are urging people to replace all stigmatizing terms with more respectful language. 

    Stigmatizing Terms & Alternatives 

    Here are some of the most common examples of stigmatizing language, along with non-stigmatizing alternatives: 


    Terms like “drug abuse” and “substance abuse” have a negative connotation that often attracts judgment. Try using more neutral terms, such as “drug use” if the person is using illicit drugs or “drug misuse” if the person is using prescription drugs.

    Concerns over the term “abuse” have led many people to advocate for name changes at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 

    Drug Abuser

    Like “addict,” the term “drug abuser” defines a person by their drug use. Other terms with the same effect include “user,” “junkie,” and “alcoholic.”

    You can replace all of these terms with “a person who misuses drugs” or “a person with substance use disorder.” 

    You could also specify the type of addiction the person has. For instance, you could say “a person with alcohol use disorder” or “a person with opioid use disorder.”

    Similarly, instead of “former addict” or “former drug abuser,” try using “person in recovery” or “person in long-term recovery.”

    It’s important to note that some people with addiction use terms like “addict” and “drug abuser” to describe themselves. This behavior is generally not considered stigmatizing because it’s not referring to other people.

    Drug Habit

    The term “drug habit” paints addiction as a simple habit one can break through willpower alone. In reality, addiction is a serious, complex disease that requires medical treatment and long-term management. Replace “drug habit” with “drug addiction” or “substance use disorder.” 


    You might hear the word “clean” used to describe someone who has become sober after using drugs in the past. This term can be harmful because it suggests that people who still use drugs are “dirty.” Instead, just say that the person is no longer using drugs. 


    For many people, the term “relapse” feels overwhelmingly negative and judgmental. Aim for more neutral language, such as”return to use” or “resumption of use.”

    Replacement Therapy

    Some people use the term “replacement therapy” to describe the use of medications (namely buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone) to treat opioid addiction. This term reinforces the misconception that using these medications is simply replacing one addiction with another. 

    The more popular term “medication-assisted treatment” or “MAT” acknowledges the fact that like many other diseases, addiction often requires medication. 

    However, some recovery advocates find “MAT” stigmatizing as well. 

    That’s because it presents medication as a supplementary or short-term intervention. In reality, it’s a crucial, life-saving component of numerous treatment plans. Instead of “MAT,” consider using “medications for opioid use disorder” or “MOUD.”

    By making these simple changes to your vocabulary, you can help end the stigma of addiction. 

    If you or someone you love struggles with addiction, please reach out to an Ark Behavioral Health specialist. Our inpatient and outpatient treatment programs offer medical detox, mental health counseling, and other evidence-based treatments to help you or your loved one stay drug-free.

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2024 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.
    Article Sources

    Johns Hopkins Medicine - Stigma of Addiction
    National Institute on Drug Abuse - Addressing the Stigma that Surrounds Addiction
    National Institute on Drug Abuse - Words Matter: Preferred Language for Talking About Addiction
    State of New Jersey - Addiction Stigma Language

    Medically Reviewed by
    Manish Mishra, MBBS
    on February 18, 2023
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