What’s in a name? When Shakespeare asked that question, he was referring to how a person’s lineage shouldn’t define who they are. Yet even today, names hold a lot of power. Some of us seek out ways to label ourselves so that we feel we fit in. Feminist, bisexual, geek, even the recently coined “snowflake” – these terms have been used scornfully in the past but are now embraced by some who like knowing that they’re part of a group. Unfortunately, labels aren’t always helpful. Calling someone a derogatory slur, for example, is never all right. One word that we tend to use over and over without considering that it might have any negative impact is “addict.” It seems harmless enough, right? If a person is addicted to drugs or alcohol, they’re an addict – it’s just a fact. But some experts say that calling someone an addict or an alcoholic only serves to reinforce the stigma, and that we should stop using those terms.
Some of you might ask, what’s the big deal? It might not right or fair, but some of us get called names every day. Women, people of color, LGBT people, poor people – there are slurs for every group that some other group looks down on. We might not accept it, but we’ve come to almost expect it. Putting aside the conversation about how that’s just enabling bad behavior, in the case of people with substance use disorders, using words like addict and alcoholic reinforces all of the negative biases toward them and makes it harder for them to get treatment.
A study out of the University of Pennsylvania has found that the terms are associated with a strong negative bias, as is the label “substance abuser.” Participants were given descriptions of people who were assigned these labels and questioned about their willingness to associate with them. The terms “substance abuser”, “addict”, “alcoholic”, and “opioid addict” were strongly associated with undesirable people, as was “relapse.” The phrase “recurrence of use” had more positive connotations, however, as did “long-term recovery” and “pharmacotherapy,” which got far better results than “medication-assisted treatment.” Interestingly, “medication-assisted recovery” was also viewed as positive, suggesting that we view people who are in recovery as somehow better than those who are still actively seeking treatment.
Only one in ten people with an addiction will reach out for professional help. There are other explanations behind this, like people being in denial or being afraid of going through withdrawal, but there’s no doubt that the shame and embarrassment of admitting they have a substance use disorder also plays a role. If we can do anything to destigmatize the condition and encourage even a few more people to seek help, perhaps it’s worth a change in vocabulary.
If you or a loved one need help with quitting drugs or alcohol, consider Asana Recovery. We offer medical detox, along with both residential and outpatient programs, and you’ll be supervised by a highly trained staff of medical professionals, counselors, and therapists. Call us any time at (949) 438-4504 to get started.