Research indicates that the language we use to describe substance use disorder can either contribute to or alleviate the stigma. Fortunately, the language is beginning to shift, just as it has around other diseases or mental health conditions. In a recent revision, the Associated Press Stylebook (a guide for journalists and writers) took an important step by recommending that writers no longer use "addict" as a noun, and instead choose phrasing like “he was addicted” or “people with heroin addiction” or “she used drugs”. This important change separates the person from the disease.
The AP Stylebook also prompts writers to distinguish between addiction and dependence in relation to drug use, as they are two very different things. A person may be dependent on a medication that provides important health and treatment benefits, whereas addiction is a medical disorder marked by compulsive drug use despite negative consequences. Failure to distinguish between the two has led some to refuse medication assisted treatment because they are concerned about trading one addiction for another. Medication assisted treatment, such as methadone or buprenorphine, is considered a very effective evidence based practice by treatment professionals. In an article by Maia Szalavitz published by NPR on June 11, 2017, Szalavitz explains, “Widespread media misunderstanding of the fundamental nature of addiction has led to some deadly misconceptions about how it should be managed… it [language changes] could genuinely help improve drug treatment and policy by reducing stigma against lifesaving forms of treatment…”
Having an influential organization such as the AP recognize the importance of how we talk about substance use disorders is a huge step forward in helping society understand SUD as a medical issue rather than a moral failing or lack of will power. As our community makes this change, it will lead to more people feeling safe in seeking treatment for this disorder.
About the Author: Pam Newbury is the editor of the League of Women Voters' VOTER Santa Cruz newsletter and a member of the Talk About It initiative.