Words matter when describing addiction

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Using judgmental words like “junkie,” “crackhead,” or even “substance abuser” can increase the stigma associated with substance use disorders and can end up driving people away from the treatment they need, according to an Oct. 4, 2016 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

“The basic message is that words matter,” said Howard Koh, Harvey V. Fineberg Professor of the Practice of Public Health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in an Oct. 5, 2016 Huffington Post article. Koh co-authored the JAMA “Viewpoint” with Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Fear of negative reactions from neighbors, community members, and employers can keep people from seeking treatment for substance abuse disorders, Koh said.

But choosing words without negative connotations can help, Koh and Botticelli wrote. For instance, the commonly used term “drug abuser”—potentially stigmatizing—could be replaced with “person with a substance use disorder.”

Said Koh, “Changing the language can reduce stigma that isolates people and remove barriers that hold too many people back from receiving the treatment they need and deserve.”