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Words Matter: Preferred Language for Talking About Addiction


Addiction is a chronic but treatable medical condition. Often unintentionally, many people still talk about addiction in ways that are stigmatizing—meaning they use words that can portray someone with a substance use disorder (SUD) in a shameful or negative way and may prevent them from seeking treatment. With simple changes in language harmful stigma and negativity around SUD can be reduced or avoided. Read on to learn more about what stigma is, how it affects people with SUD, and how you can help make a change.

What is Stigma?

Stigma is a discrimination against an identifiable group of people, a place, or a nation. Stigma about people with substance use disorders might include inaccurate or unfounded thoughts like: they are dangerous, incapable of managing treatment, or at fault for their condition.

Where does stigma come from?

Stigma around addiction may come from old and inaccurate ideas, or fear of things that are different or misunderstood. Today, we know that addiction is a chronic, treatable medical condition. We also know that people can recover and continue to lead healthy lives.

How does it affect people with SUD?

  • Feeling stigmatized can make people with SUD less willing to seek treatment.

  • Negative stereotypes about people with SUD can make others feel pity, fear, and even anger.

How can we make a change?

  • When talking to or about people with SUD, make sure to use words that aren’t stigmatizing.

  • Use person-first language, which focuses on the person—not their illness. It focuses on removing words that define a person by their condition or have negative meanings. For example, “person with a substance use disorder” has a neutral tone and separates the person from his or her disorder.

  • Let people choose how they are described. If you’re not sure what words to use, just ask! Check in with friends or loved ones about how they refer to themselves and how they would like others to refer to them.


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