Word on Wellness: How to Talk About Addiction with Dignity

October 7, 2021

with Susannah S. Alleyne
Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Counsel and Equity Ombudsperson
Law Society of Alberta

Words matter. While that’s a fact, many of us – myself included – have words in our lexicon that we don’t think much about. We use these words in every day discussions and are sometimes totally oblivious to the impact we have on others. When it comes to talking about the disease of addiction, we can all do a little better and expand our vocabulary to those living with or experiencing the impact of substance use disorder. Here are few examples you can implement right away.

Addiction/Habit

Just above, I used a different term for addiction. This term is still widely accepted and easily understood; however, substance use disorder amplifies the disease aspect and centres the human experience of living with a disorder.

Addict

This is a loaded stigmatizing term that reduces an individual to their disorder. Instead, you could say a person with substance use disorder, a person with addiction or struggling with addiction.

Abuse/Abuser/User

These terms centre the person’s drug use and has negative connotations. Instead, you could say that person is using and name the substance (i.e. opioids), struggling with substance use or engaging in risky or harmful use.

Replacement/substitution therapy

These terms can have the effect of implying that the person is simply using another addictive substance and may not remove the stigma associated with substance use disorder. They can also serve to minimize the validity of this treatment. Try saying medication-assisted treatment, medication or treatment or medication for addiction treatment when referring to prescribed medications such as Methadone, Suboxone or Vivitrol.

Clean/Sober

These terms have the direct impact of categorizing substance use disorder and those struggling as socially unacceptable and inherently “dirty”. Instead you could say, in recovery or not currently using.

Learning a new language, including around addiction may not be easy, but it’s necessary work that increases inclusivity and creates safer spaces for those struggling or in need of support. When we change the way we talk about an issue, it helps us and others think differently and reduces stigma. Everyone benefits when we remember that words matter.

For more information on changing the language of addiction check out this resource.