Discussion: Language matters when talking about addiction

  • The Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region hosted a discussion “Language Matters: Changing the Way We Talk About Addiction” with Dr. John Kelly, founder and director of the Recovery Research Institute. STAFF PHOTO/ZACK DELUCA

Staff Writer
Published: 9/20/2021 1:17:02 PM
Modified: 9/20/2021 1:17:02 PM

The Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region focused on the importance of choice in language and how it can affect addiction stigma during Thursday’s virtual discussion “Language Matters: Changing the Way We Talk About Addiction.”

The hour-long discussion was held as part of National Recovery Month, which is celebrated annually in September, and featured Dr. John Keely, founder and director of the Recovery Research Institute. The institute is responsible for developing “Addictionary” — a tool that helps professionals, caregivers and family members use non-stigmatizing language when working or living with someone impacted by substance misuse.

“Research now clearly demonstrates that the words we choose to describe drug-related impairment and those individuals suffering from it can strongly influence stigma and discrimination and, ultimately, affect the effectiveness of our societal approaches to addressing these problems,” Kelly explained. “We need to be much better informed and more thoughtful about our language choices.”

Kelly said he developed the Addictionary roughly 15 years ago based on the idea that views around substance use disorder can be greatly destigmatized through the use of unified language that “accurately depicts what we’ve learned about substance disorders over the last 50 years.”

This year marks 50 years since President Richard Nixon declared his “War on Drugs.” Kelly said this movement has led to decades of punitive language and laws that “disproportionately affect Black and Brown men” through imbalanced incarceration rates. While the public’s awareness of these disparities in law has increased over time, Kelly said there is still stigma stemming from the language used to discuss health and substance use disorders. Nixon declared drug abuse as “public enemy number one,” but Kelly said this harsh language has left a lasting negative impact on those in recovery and leads to further stigma.

“Nowadays we would not refer to drug abuse as public enemy number one, but rather as our top public health problem,” Kelly said.

He said further education needs to be provided on the conditions of substance use addiction. Secondly, he said personal interactions with members of the recovery community help lessen stigma and assumptions about addiction. Thirdly, he said it is necessary to make a change in language and terminology “to be consistent with the nature of the condition and the policies we wish to implement to address” addiction and recovery.

According to Kelly’s presentation, substance use disorders are more stigmatized than other psychiatric disorders. He said people with substance use disorders are perceived as more to blame for their disorder. Patients who hold more stigmatizing beliefs about substance use disorders are less likely to seek treatment.

Use of language that furthers stigma doesn’t just need to be changed for members of the public, but for physicians and medical professionals, too, Kelly said. He said medical professionals are susceptible to inducing biases depending on the language used, even if they mean nothing by it when using certain terms.

“We need to be conscious of what terminology to use in what circumstances,” Kelly said.

He said the use of certain language can unintentionally feed into systemic biases and lead to more punitive judgment, instead of favoring public health goals. Physicians and clinicians have been shown to hold biases against those with substance use disorders and can view these patients as unmotivated or dishonest about their condition.

While people may consider substance use to be “a choice initially,” Kelly noted that genetics play a major factor in individuals’ susceptibility to addiction. Recognizing substance use is a condition, and using language to say that a patient “can’t help it” or that “it’s not their fault” can decrease stigma and encourage patients to seek treatment without fear of judgment.

One major step that the average person can take is to drop the word “abuser” from their vocabulary when discussing addiction. Referring to someone as a “substance abuser” can imply willful misconduct, while saying someone has “a substance use disorder” implies a medical malfunction, Kelly said. Another important conscious effort is to use “person first language” that “respects individuals as dignified people who happen to have these substance disorders.”

Speaking during the Zoom discussion, Leon Richards, who is with the North Quabbin Recovery Center, said he refers to himself as someone who “lives with the disease of addiction” or who is “in recovery.” Sarah Ahern, an addiction recovery coach with the Opioid Task Force’s CONNECT program, said she referred to the Addictionary to encourage her own family to be conscious of their choice in language regarding addiction recovery.

Data shared by Kelly shows that more than 23 million Americans, or approximately 10% of the United States population, report being in recovery from substance misuse or addiction. National Recovery Month, now in its 32nd year, is designed to show that people can recover from addiction to have fulfilling lives.

Zack DeLuca can be reached at zdeluca@recorder.com or 413-930-4579.


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