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What's in a word? How language can destigmatize substance use

Language matters. How we talk about substance use and overdose can frame how people view it, and how they respond.
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This week is National Addictions Awareness Week (NAAW), and the theme is Words Matter. Dr. Heather Fulton, a psychologist with the Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addiction, is generating awareness on the use of stigmatizing language and the affect it can have on those struggling with substance use disorders.  Stigma, or fear of being stigmatized, can stop people from reaching out for help from others (which may include treatment), or even leave treatment early due to feeling judged or misunderstood.

"It's important to understand the power of language, and the impact it can have, both positively and negatively, on someone who is struggling with a substance use disorder," said Dr. Heather Fulton. "For example, if you say 'a mother who is a struggling alcoholic' we are missing the other important part of a person's identity. If we use stigmatizing language, it could deter someone from seeking help or staying on their pathway to recovery."

Dr. Fulton is sharing tips and important information that can help shape conversations around substance use and overdose, in an effort to reduce harm and increase support and encouragement for those who are living with substance use.

Tips for changing your language:

1)      When speaking to someone about their substance use, avoid using language that could make that person feel judgement or shame. Try to focus on specific instances and behaviours:

  • "I am concerned about your drinking" instead of "you're an alcoholic"
  • "I noticed that it's hard for you to control how much you drink" instead of "you abuse substances" or "you have no control" 

2)      Always use person first language.  Using stigmatizing terms like "abuser" or "addict" suggests that these are the permanent, whole identities of people:

  • Use " a mother who is struggling with alcohol use", rather than  "addict" or "alcoholic" which misses  other important parts of a  person's identity
    • By saying someone is an "addict", it's implied they will always have this same behaviour and that change isn't possible
    • Recovery is possible, and there is hope: the influence and effect of substances on someone's life can change significantly

Instead try using language like:

  • Someone WITH a substance use disorder
  • Someone WHO uses cocaine 

3)      Avoid using other stigmatizing, judgemental terms like "dirty" and "clean" to describe substance use or recovery.  Think about what is being implied about a person when using those terms.  Instead use more objective, factual terms like "use" or "don't use", or "in recovery".

4)      Try to correct others who use stigmatizing terms (e.g. abuse, addict, dirty, clean, etc). Many people don't understand the very real power that language can have.  Have conversations about the power of language, and how it may contribute to stigma and prevent people from seeking help, receiving help, or staying in treatment.  People who use substances and/or who have substance use disorders don't want to be judged, shamed or treated with a lack of understanding.  Language is an important part of this.

The dates for National Addictions Awareness Week are November 12 – 18, 2017. You can help generate awareness by participating on social media. Follow the Provincial Health Services Authority or the National Addictions Awareness Week Twitter accounts, and use these hashtags in your conversations

  • #NAAW2017
  • #WordsMatter
  • #AddictionMatters
addiction; BC Mental Health & Substance Use Services
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