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Improving Language to Reduce Stigma

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Words matter. This is especially so when it comes to terms describing conditions associated with Substance Use Disorder (SUD). Many terms we have been familiar with, like addict, dirty and abuser are misleading, outdated, and in some cases, hurtful. Using these terms that create the common stigma that might take a person to a place where they are feeling a low self-esteem and might be ashamed to seek help, when the fact is that SUD is not a personal failure. It is a chronic illness that can be treated with medication and therapy.

Stigma is one of the biggest hurdles to overcoming SUD. So, in order to mitigate the stigma, it’s important to improve the language surrounding it.


The following is a list of common terms we should avoid with better, more affirmative and humanizing alternatives recommended by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.


  • Addict, Abuser – Person with Substance Use Disorder
  • Drug problem or drug habit – Substance Use Disorder
  • Drug abuse – Drug misuse or harmful use
  • Clean – Abstinent, not actively using
  • Dirty – Actively using
  • Clean Drug Screen – Testing negative for substance use
  • Dirty Drug Screen – Testing positive for substance use
  • Former addict or reformed addict – Person in recovery or person in long-term recovery
  • Opioid replacement, methadone maintenance – Medication for substance use disorder treatment.


Other terms with stigma alerts include:


  • Co-dependency or enabling – Simply, avoid this term
    • There is no scientific research to support the concept of co-dependency. Many mental health and relationship experts believe the term is inherently flawed and reject its use.
  • Dope sick – Suffering from withdrawal
  • Drug – Medication
    • It can be ambiguous when referring to prescription medications and thus create a barrier to accessing them.
  • Lapse, relapse or slip – Resumed use or experienced a recurrence of Substance Use Disorder
    • These terms can imply a moral failing.


Some of these terms can be a bit of a mouthful, but it’s apparent how much more humanizing and less derogatory they can be. The person suffering from SUD is no longer labeled, but he or she is a person in need of support, understanding and care.


If you think you or a loved one may be suffering from SUD, it is recommended that you talk with your doctor or a recovery specialist about treatment.


Dale Willenbrink
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