The Way We Talk About Addiction Matters



How we understand addiction has vastly changed in the past several decades, and with it, the way we talk about addiction. Addiction was viewed in the past as a moral failing and that a person simply could “just say no” to drugs or alcohol. We now understand that addiction is a disorder that impacts the brain and behavior and needs effective interventions.


Unfortunately, these outdated views on substance use disorders have created stigma and shame that center around blaming the individual for their struggles (and their lack of willpower). This stigma lives on in the language of how addiction is discussed or even how we refer to those who live with addiction. For example, calling someone an addict may be the easiest way to refer to a group of people with a similar struggle, but it is still highlighting the problem they face over who they are as a person. Similarly, the term “getting clean” communicates that before recovery this person was “unclean”. This type of language can be demoralizing and affects how a person’s family and care team view them, as well as damaging their own self-concept. Further, when we use the term “abuse” to define a person who is self-medicating their pain, we are using a highly damaging and powerful label. To abuse someone or something is a pretty serious offense and when this is equated with a person’s primary source of coping (i.e. substances), it can serve to devalue or criminalize their behavior.



Why Calling Someone an Addict isn’t Helpful

It is entrenched in our culture to call someone an addict or an alcoholic if they have difficulties with substances. You may wonder why this even matters and feel some resistance in changing this term to “a person with addiction”. Let’s explore how calling someone an addict can impact a person’s recovery.


Shame and Poor Self-Esteem Increase

Most of the time, people already feel shame about their addiction. When they’re labeled an addict as well, it can send the message that something is defective about them. Unspoken words surround this label also, such as “worthless”, “burden”, “disappointment”, and “weak-willed”.


When this label is internalized, often addictive behavior increases to cope with this critical view of themselves. The person with addiction then becomes one and the same with the source of their shame, losing sight of their recovery potential.


People Are Less Likely to Get Help

The National Institute on Drug Abuse connects the stigma of addiction to one of the contributing factors of why people do not get treatment. This can lead to deaths and other negative consequences that could have been prevented.


The fear of being called an addict can feel so damaging that people are less likely to be truthful about their concerns or seek support. This can even come from how people have been treated in the past from health professionals. Being labeled ‘drug-seeking’ when trying to get help or feeling as though they are put in a stereotyped box can dissuade people from feeling as though effective treatment is possible.


Change Seems Hopeless

Calling someone an addict can do the opposite of helping inspire change. Thoughts like “Nothing will help because I will always be an addict” become the dominant theme in their headspace. The person begins to identify that being an “addict” is their personality. It can feel as though there are no other options and that they themselves are the problem.


When this view is present, hopelessness is insidious, especially as recovery attempts fail. However, when the language shifts, even on a microscopic level, then it is more possible to imagine that their relationship with substances can change.



The Path Towards Destigmatizing Addiction

We are all responsible for changing the way that our society views addiction. How we talk about addiction can begin to alter our cultural views on substance abuse disorder. The power of language impacts how a person views their recovery journey and gets support which affects generations to come. Here are a few suggestions to increase your support for people with addiction.

  1. Use ‘Person-First’ Language: Instead of calling someone an addict which identifies who they are as the problem, try saying something like: A person who uses drugs, people with addiction, or he has a substance use disorder. A fellow comrade in the fight against addiction stigma, NPR shared an article about how the standards for media have been changing to reflect person-first language as well.

  2. Check Your Biases: Take a minute to imagine what a person with an addiction looks like. The quick picture that popped in your mind likely reflects a stereotype about addiction. Remember that addiction impacts people regardless of gender, race, socioeconomic status, or job title. When we expand our view of addiction, more people will feel comfortable exploring ways to get help. Also, there is no one size fits all approach for someone with an addiction. Everyone has their own unique treatment needs that do not fall under the blanket term “addict”.

  3. Keep Learning: Being educated about what addiction is and how it persists can help to address the myths that our society holds. Remember that addiction is a disorder that persists despite the person experiencing negative consequences. There is also ample evidence that treatment can be helpful to build recovery and a different life.


SagePoint IOP is passionate about changing the way our society talks about addiction. We know that people have the capacity to change and that no one is “just an addict”. We operate from a foundation of respect in all of our evidence-based treatment approaches. If you or a loved one is recognizing problematic addictive behavior in your life, please reach out today to learn more about our services.