Knowing the most accurate and empathetic way to discuss addiction can be a challenge.
Even the previous sentence might be the source of controversy—or at least of some minor misinterpretation. Why? It could also be written: Knowing the most accurate and empathetic way to discuss substance use disorders can be a challenge.
The words we choose matter, and they matter more so when considering a topic as difficult as this one. There is good reason why outdated phrases like “boozer” and “druggie” have fallen out of fashion. They disparage and reduce a person with a substance use disorder to one aspect of their being. They callously equate the person to their disease.
In 2019, the language of mental health care continues to evolve. It does so not to confuse, although the plethora of technical terms can sometimes be confusing. Instead, the goal is to utilize language that maintains the humanity of those afflicted with a serious disease.
In this post you will find a list of the most commonly used phrases in today’s mental health care world. These terms are divided into three categories: words that work, words to use with caution, and words to avoid.
If you struggle to keep up with the most up-to-date mental health glossary, don’t be too hard on yourself. Words are important, but so is the intention with which we use them. As long as you treat yourself and your loved ones with compassion—and speak in a way that reflects your caring—you are on the right track.
Key Terms: Words that Work
- Addiction. “Uncontrollable, compulsive drug seeking and use, even in the face of negative health and social consequences.” This is one of the most commonly used phrases that one can almost always use with confidence. The one caveat is in a more clinical, medical context. Then you are more likely to hear “dependence.”
- Person with… For instance, a “person with” a substance use disorder is perhaps the most humanizing way to describe said person. This particular sentence construction grants identity to the person dealing with disease, rather than defining them by that disease.
- Substance use disorder. “Substance use disorders include misuse, dependence, and addiction to alcohol and/or legal or illegal drugs. The term is helpful because it encompasses a range of severity levels, from problem use to dependence and addiction.” Be mindful that this term can refer to any substance, including alcohol, recreational drugs, caffeine, etc.
- Use/misuse. Use “commonly refers to experimental or occasional consumption of alcohol and drugs.” Misuse “offers the same intended meaning as what has traditionally been termed as abuse, but without the stigma and judgmental overtones that abuse carries.” Both of these terms are generally acceptable and are helpful to consider in tandem.
Key Terms: Words to Use with Caution
- Chronic disease. These words are helpful in so far as they correctly characterize substance use disorders as a disease that requires ongoing maintenance. They do not suggest that addictions “strike once” and then dissipate. The caution: “Some view the term ‘chronic’ as enabling, one that justifies failure and presumes a negative end result.”
- Recovered vs. in recovery. These two phrases sound alike, but there is an ongoing debate about which is used and in what context. The simplest summary goes like this: “It has been suggested that in recovery applies to those who continue an active commitment to the recovery process, while recovered applies to those who have effectively dealt with the symptoms for a number of years without a recurrence of the illness.”
- Treatment works. “The term may be useful if referring to a single episode or period of intervention and services.” However, there is a huge caution: Treatment is not something that happens to an individual at one magic-bullet moment. It is an ongoing process that a person must be an active participant. An alternative sentence might be: individuals learn to manage their illnesses with the help of treatment.
Key Terms: Words to Avoid
- Abuse. Four salient points highlight the issues of using this word.
- It negates the fact that substance use disorders are a medical condition.
- It blames the illness solely on the individual with the illness.
- It absolves those selling and promoting addictive substances of any wrongdoing.
- It feeds into the stigma experienced by individuals with substance use disorders, by family members.
- User. As mentioned above, this is an antiquated term. It reduces a person to one aspect of their behavior. Avoid this word and other similar terms like abuser, addict, and alcoholic. Instead, it is appropriate to put the person first and say, for example, “person who uses drugs.”
More Terminology that Works
These phrases are three positive examples of vocabulary devoid of judgement and helpful in discussions about addiction.
- Communities of recovery. “This is a term to describe all who are either in recovery from alcohol and drug disease, family members, workforce members, and others who have a personal commitment to the issue.”
- Road to recovery. This phrase embodies the notion that recovery is a journey, not just one quick fix. Add an “s,” roads to recovery, to symbolize that there are indeed many different paths to take.
- Allies of recovery. Reading this, you are probably an ally of recovery. “Recovery involves not only those who are in recovery, but supporters as well.”
The main source of definitions in the article comes from the National Alliance of Advocates for Buprenorphine Treatment. This pdf produced in 2004 contains examples from the above list and more. Keep in mind that although the NAABT publication is almost two decades old, its contents still hold true. Nonetheless, be alert for other, newer terms that have appeared regarding mental health and substance use.