I am writing in response to your recent article, ‘Ex-addict warns about narcotic problem.’ I am grateful that this community, and its media, have begun to provide much needed coverage to raise awareness about the opioid epidemic. This is a critical conversation, as the rates of drug overdoes death continue to rise in our community. However, we may be inadvertently doing harm by perpetuating addiction-related stigma.
In 2017, the Associated Press Stylebook recommended that journalists should “avoid words like alcoholic, addict, user and abuser and to instead choose phrasing like, ‘He was addicted, people with heroin addiction or he used drugs.’” This reflects the current emphasis in healthcare on patient centered care, including person first language. An example of person first language is using ‘person with diabetes’ instead of ‘diabetic.’ Or, in the case of addiction, ‘a person with a substance use disorder’ or ‘a person in recovery.’
Even a small difference in language can directly impact someone’s life. In 2010, Drs. Kelly and Westerhoff presented two stories about a fictional patient named Mr. Williams, a drug court participant, to some professional counselors. The two stories were identical, except for one very small difference: One referred to Mr. Williams as a ‘substance abuser’ and the other described him as a ‘person with a substance use disorder.’ The counselors who received the story describing Mr. Williams as a ‘person with a substance use disorder,’ were more likely to recommend treatment rather than jail. The point is that language really matters. And it isn’t about being politically correct. The words we use to talk about addiction have real consequences.
The words we use influence how we think about addiction and thus how we approach solutions. Even as our understanding of the disease process of addiction improves, the condition remains highly stigmatized around the world. Results of a recent international study indicated that illicit drug addiction was the number one most stigmatized condition across 14 countries. Further, study results indicate we are more likely to blame a person with addiction for their disorder than any other mental illness, such as schizophrenia, depression or dementia. This stigma is a major barrier that can lead people to delay seeking addiction treatment or healthcare for addiction related problems (e.g., Hep C, injection-related infections). Again, language matters.
Finally, one of the most important voices in community conversations about addiction is that of people in long-term recovery. If we reduce the stigma in our community surrounding addiction, more people will share their stories of recovery — like Alex, a person in long-term recovery — did at the Scott County forum.
Please consider using the AP Stylebook’s recommendations for language regarding addiction. You have an opportunity to change the conversation about addiction and to contribute meaningfully to the solution and not the problem.
Amanda Fallin-Bennett, PhD, RN, is vice president of Voices of Hope-Lexington, Inc.