Words Matter: The Language of Addiction and Life-Saving Treatments

August 16, 2016 | Sarah Wakeman, MD, FASAM, Medical Director, Massachusetts General Hospital Substance Use Disorder Initiative

News articles, radio, and television frequently report on the current opioid crisis. As the death toll has mounted, the media has importantly covered many aspects of the crisis. Unfortunately, this coverage often focuses on the very visible individuals who continue to struggle with active addiction. What is missing is a narrative of hope for a chronic disease which is as treatable as diabetes or high blood pressure.

In addition to the pessimistic portrait painted about addiction, the language used by the media is often problematic. Articles frequently use the term “abuse” or “abuser” or refer to individuals as “addicts.” Even the term “clean” is laden when referencing sobriety, as it implies that someone who is actively using is somehow “dirty.”

Language matters–a lot

The use of “abuse” and “abuser” has been shown to increase stigma even among highly trained clinicians, who recommend more punitive treatment when an individual is described that way. We do not call patients with diabetes “sugar abusers,” nor do we say their blood is “dirty” with sugar. Describing patients as having a substance use disorder demonstrates that their illness does not define them, just as we should no longer call a person with schizophrenia a “schizophrenic.”

Read the full blog post.