New Language Leads to New Perceptions
Clinicians are spearheading this change in perception by creating new phrases to replace dated ones. Experts are designing an “Addiction-ary” to help the public learn how to constructively talk about addiction. However, the existing language has created biases that have been challenging to remove.
Changing how we talk about addiction can create a new perspective of people in recovery. Even today when we know more about substance use, the language used puts patients in a negative light. Whether intentional or not, most perceive addiction as a moral failure, not a medical condition.
This new language will help alleviate stigmas associated with substance and alcohol use disorders. Once we change the way we talk about these disorders, they will be perceived as illnesses rather than moral deficiencies.
Call for Change
The language currently used has placed stigmas on individuals battling addiction. Those affected are often perceived as dangerous and unpredictable for no other reason than their addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse stated that people and medical professionals alike use language that perpetuates these perceptions. A new form of communication is needed to create an empathic environment — one in which patients battling with addiction are treated like those with other diseases.
Harvard Medical School’s John Kelly and doctors Sarah Wakeman and Richard Salz are a few of the most prominent advocates pushing to change the language of addiction. In an article written by Kelly, Wakeman and Salz for the Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, they stated the need to adopt an accurate, person-first language.
“A doctor would never tell a patient suffering from diabetes that their blood was dirty with glucose,” Wakeman said in an interview with the Harvard Gazette. “We should ask, ‘Is this a term that we would use for another medical condition?’ If the answer is ‘no,’ we shouldn’t use it.”
Kelly has gone to great lengths to help remove language that affects treatment of those living with addiction.
Kelly crafted an online glossary of addiction-related terms called the “Addiction-ary.” It promotes people-first language that emphasizes a person has a problem — not that they are the problem. Some of the words in the “Addiction-ary” also come with a stigma “trigger warning.”
“If we want addiction destigmatized, we need a language that’s unified and really accurately portrays the true nature of what we’ve learned about these conditions over the last 25 years,” Kelly told the Harvard Gazette. “This goes beyond political correctness. It’s not just a matter of being nice.”
Many of his counterparts have joined the push to promote the Addiction-ary and its people-first language. When first published, the DSM-V recognized the new language. Nonetheless, in the beginning, the language was elementary. Those behind the movement found that the language needed to change further for proper treatment and communication.
Let’s look at some of the words to avoid and why: Instead of terms like addict, drug abuser, alcoholic or former addict, use patients or persons in long-term recovery. In doing this we cultivate a person-first language. The National Institute on Drug Abuse stated it is essential to change the narrative. So, instead of opioid-substitution replacement therapy, it should be called medication treatment for opioid use disorder. The change is to remove the error that the treatment is merely substituting one drug for another.
Looking to the Future
For us to become better at treating people with substance use disorders, a universal language must be developed to avoid the current stigmas. The more we use the Addiction-ary, the more people will start to adopt and trust the new beliefs. Helping improve treatment rather than looking at addiction as a moral deficiency will help change public perceptions. In turn, by using the new language, medical professionals can address substance use disorder as a medical condition.
Researchers such as Wakeman and Kelly continue to update the Addiction-ary and present information everywhere they can. The goal of this new language is to cultivate new perceptions of people battling substance use disorder. Ultimately, this will lead to providing the appropriate care while erasing the language of stigma.