Why Does Language Matter in Stigma Reduction?

Why Does Language Matter in Stigma Reduction?

If you have a loved one who is struggling with substance use disorder (SUD), you may be eager to help them achieve and maintain sobriety. One effective way to be supportive begins with addressing the stigma in thoughts, attitudes, and even language around SUD.

We all know that there is still widespread stigma about people who struggle with addiction. These negative attitudes can make people feel too ashamed to speak up about their problems and get the help they need. To reduce social stigma, we need to begin with the current language around the issue of SUD.

Addiction and Stigma

Stigma is a negative bias against a group of people characterized by an identifying trait. This stigma has a long and deeply ingrained history for people with SUD. Not only are people who struggle with addiction often blamed for their condition, but many people have beliefs or thoughts that are founded on misconceptions, leading to the mistreatment of these individuals.

For example, people with SUD tend to be viewed as morally irresponsible or lacking in willpower. Worse, they are sometimes criminalized. This stereotyping may lead to social isolation, shame, denial, and even hostility. When medical professionals adopt this perspective, their assistance may actually be counterproductive, harming people’s chances of seeking treatment.

Stigmatizing Language Usage

Stigmatizing language toward people with SUD includes the usage of terms like “addict” or “alcoholic.” These words define people’s identity by their conditions. When family members, colleagues, or medical providers use such language, it can have demeaning and damaging psychological effects on the person with the condition.

An improved but still problematic language around this issue is referring to people as “substance abusers.” This still associates the individual’s identity with the problem. Other words and phrases such as “come clean” also have strong moral connotations that risk being stigmatizing.

The use of stigmatizing language has long-term consequences. First, it discourages people from seeking treatment. Second, it affects treatment quality and collaboration among the people being treated. Lastly, a society’s use of stigmatizing language may shape policies that limit access to care.

Changes We Can Make to Language Use

Many recovery experts encourage the use of “person-first language.” Person-first language changes terms like “addict” to “a person with an addiction” and “substance abuser” to “someone who struggles with substance use disorder. This reflects a more scientific understanding of what SUD is and ensures that an individual’s personhood is recognized ahead of their disorder.

Addiction is a complex disease with a wide range of risk factors, including genetics, family history, trauma, and social influence. Blaming addiction on individual moral choices is not only unfair but scientifically inaccurate.

The standard for language correction is guided by the use of clinically accurate and non-stigmatizing terminology. Below are a few questions individuals can use to conduct a self-assessment about whether they are perpetuating stigmatization:

  • Do you use person-first language and avoid value-laden, identity-shaping terms?
  • Do you differentiate between substance use and substance use disorders? 
  • Do you use fear-based terms when referring to substance use?

For those caring for a loved one with an addiction, it may be time to conduct a self-audit and replace problematic terms with more inclusive language. This change should also be preceded by a better understanding of the science of SUD.

How to Promote De-Stigmatization

Reducing stigmatizing language can help individuals recover better. As individuals grow in knowledge about the language around SUD, they can encourage others around them to do so as well. Every time someone educates another person about the science and necessity of using proper language, they are contributing to stigma reduction.

Because mental health problems often co-occur with SUD, learning appropriate language around mental illnesses to reduce stigma in this area is also important. Many people with mental health problems do not seek treatment also due to stigmatization. For people who are recovering from both conditions (SUD and mental health problems), there are more barriers.

Removing Barriers to Treatment and Care

Research has shown that using scientifically accurate language that respects the lived experiences of people with certain medical concerns is crucial in reducing stigma and removing barriers to treatment. People are not their problems, and they are no better or worse than the general population for struggling with them.

More research must be done to delineate the cultural nuances of lived experiences among people with SUD. Curating narratives and story-telling can be a humanizing approach. Whether an individual is a family member caring for a loved one with an addiction, a health professional providing services to this population, or someone who needs help achieving sobriety themselves, everyone has a role in correcting and reducing stigma.

Stigma reduction is essential for society-wide addiction prevention campaigns. This is why Laguna Shores Recovery emphasizes person-first language in our community. If you are looking for a strong recovery community where you can heal and belong, you do not need to look beyond Laguna Shores Recovery. Here, our recovery experts and mental health professionals all strive to provide customized programs to ensure the best treatment for you. We offer plans that include detox, medication, 12-Step groups, and relationship skills coaching, all of which can greatly enhance your experience on the road to long-term sustainable recovery. Most of our staff are in recovery themselves, so they know the value of a caring treatment team and language that doesn’t perpetuate stigma. Schedule an appointment with a licensed mental healthcare professional or therapist at Laguna Shores Recovery today. Call us at (866) 906-3203 to find out more.