STIGMA. How exactly can a six-letter word be so controlling? As a dictionary definition, the word “stigma” is defined as a disgrace in connection with an individual or a situation. In the context of substance use, stigma is one of the top barriers to people with substance use disorders to seek support and have access to treatment options. Stigma can be derived from a number of sources, but words and the language around substance use can be the most conveyed form of stigma. The continued use of such language maintains misconceptions and judgement around substance use.
Language, in the context of stigma, is an overt descriptor of our cognitive scripts that can be carried out into our actions. The language used when talking about substance use disorders and treatment can create barriers on multiple systemic levels within healthcare and employment for individuals trying to recover and contribute to society. On an individual level, this stigmatizing language can be embodied by the individual struggling with a substance use disorder and influence their thoughts, actions, and beliefs, particularly in the context of continuing to reach out for support with their substance use disorder. In essence, they embody what is being conveyed to them. On a societal level, stigmatizing language perpetuates the stigma from individuals into a much larger and systemic basis and can evolve to formulate the reality of the individual struggling with the substance use disorder.
As reiterated to us throughout most of our lives, words do matter. As much as language in the past has contributed to perpetuating stigma, we do have the ability to change that. We can use our words to help decrease the stigma. Person first language is the primary basis in learning how to do so as it recognizes that before all, an individual is a person first. So, they may have a substance use disorder, but they are not the substance use disorder in themselves, and their identity should not be brought down to their substance use disorder.
When we are able to shift the language around substance use disorder and begin to frame and treat it as a medical condition, we will address a key barrier and perpetuator or stigma. This in turn can give those who are struggling a wider range of potentially life saving support. Terms such as “addict” or “abuser” or describing recovery from their substance use disorders as just “needing the willpower to quit” or “to be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps” communicates that individuals are able to just control their substance use disorder, rather than it being an actual illness in need of medical treatment.
We are all in control of the language we use and therefore can play a role in changing the conversation around substance use. Instead of ‘addict’ try “person who uses substances” or “person with a substance use disorder.” Instead of “getting clean,” try “they are in recovery.”
Take some time and think about the language you have used in the past. Perhaps in your next conversations you may make different choices, and in turn, take steps toward reducing stigma. For more information on person-first language check out Ensemble Moncton or the Canadian Centre for Substance use and Addiction.