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Words Matter: Changing The Way We Discuss Addiction

Words Matter: Changing The Way We Discuss Addiction

WASHINGTON, D.C. (April 13, 2017) – Most of us think of language as a simple way to communicate ideas, but research shows that language actually affects perception – and how we perceive something can make a big difference in how we think and act in regards to a topic. Research released last year by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy found that words used to describe addiction can drive people towards or away from getting help. Words can either perpetuate or improve the stigma associated with addiction. Because media and its language have such a large impact on the public’s perception of mental illness and addiction, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) put together a guide for journalists to help them use responsible language when referring to the topic (you can see that by clicking here) [inline_cta_one] Let’s try it for a second. Stop reading this for a moment and close your eyes and think about the word “junkie” for five seconds. Back open? Good. Okay, now close your eyes for five seconds and think of the medical terminology, “substance use disorder”. Did you see or remember two different pictures? We did too.

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You see, words like “addict” and “junkie” have a connotation of hopelessness. They don’t allow for room of hope in healing. They conjure feelings of resentment, anger, and a lack of compassion. The problem with political correctness is always that a subject sometimes gets watered down to mean less than it actually is. But I argue that this is not about political correctness. It is about using the clinical terminology for a subject. If we are going to talk about addiction as a disease, then it is imperative that we use the technical terms associated with it. We don’t call people with schizophrenia a “schizophrenic” or someone with anorexia “an anorexic”. They are people battling a pain that we can hardly wrap our head around. They are people who are already having a damaging and hurtful experience in response to things that they aren’t capable of managing. They are people experiencing an addiction. They are people period. Addiction doesn’t exist without a host. Let’s work to use terms that place the problem outside of the person. We all know that addiction is painful, infuriating, terrifying and heartbreaking. But self-perception for someone in need of treatment is vital to their recovery. And we don’t care as much about how the world feels about the language we use, as we do about how a person sees their issues when living with addiction. The bottom line when it comes to stigmatizing language is that we all have the power to either encourage or discourage. We hope our society chooses to lift someone up, rather than tear them down.