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Importance of Using Recovery Language

Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.”
– Yehuda Berg


Whether we know it or not, our words carry weight and meaning. When used improperly, language and phraseology can have a lasting and destructive impact on stigmatized societal issues. The substance use disorder (SUD) field is not the only area where this is problematic; there is a plethora of research that has shown individuals with an SUD are viewed more negatively than people with physical or psychiatric disabilities.[1][2]  That is a huge problem considering there was an estimated 20.8 million people who were thought to have a substance use disorder in 2015.[3] More Americans now die every year from accidental drug overdoses than in motor vehicle crashes.[4]  An estimated 89% of people in need of treatment are not receiving it.3 These startling statistics affords the community a call to action to be thoughtful about not only what we say, but how we say it. Stigma surrounding SUD is real, and this all-reaching societal epidemic is not going to get better overnight. However, if we change our language, and educate one another, more people may seek out the treatment they so desperately need.

One strategy to shift the way we talk about SUD is to adopt clinical, non-stigmatizing language. Words like “addict”, “alcoholic”, “junkie”, and “drunk” have been ingrained into us with a negative connotation. Other phrases commonly used like “drug habit” are both polarizing and misinformative by implying someone has a choice. These simple little word choices instill false information into our society that can take decades to reeducate. Words like “abuse” or “abuser” can have negative judgements and perceptions which may be the difference between someone receiving punishment or receiving the treatment they need. Additionally, we must adjust the language we use that label whether or not someone is using. When discussing a toxicology screen, the terms “clean” and “dirty” are used which carry negative connotations as opposed to the preferred verbiage of “positive” or negative.”  We need to continue to promote the proliferation of these more neutralizing words.

It is important that we continue to drive this life changing message home to ensure that we are decreasing the negative attitudes and misconceptions that surround this fatal disease.  Organizations like the National Association for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC) have begun to require terminology at their conferences:

Instead of “addict,” please use “person with a substance use disorder.”  Instead of “addicted to X,” please use “has an X use disorder,” “has a serious X use disorder,” or “has a substance use disorder involving X” (if more than one substance is involved.) Instead of “alcoholic,” please use “person with an alcohol use disorder.” Instead of “drug/substance abuse,” please use “substance use disorder.” Instead of “former addict,” please use “person in recovery” or “person in long-term recovery.”


Here are a few things you can do on your campus to help change the way we talk about addiction and recovery:

–   Check marketing materials for stigmatizing language.

–   Practice non-stigmatizing and person-first language in your workplace.

–   Utilize our upcoming Recovery Ally Training on your campus to educate                 about the importance of language.

–   Do a recovery messaging training with your students in recovery and recovery allies.

–   Require conference proposals and presentations to not use stigmatizing language just like NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals


Whether you’re a person in recovery, a recovery ally, or just a friend or family member of someone with the disease of addiction, it falls on all of us to shift the way we talk about SUD. It’s on us to make sure someone suffering doesn’t have to stay in the shadows. We need to continue to get these issues on the table, talk about them and continue to make strides in our communities. Stigma is not inherent, it’s taught. We can change that, one word at a time.


Rob Schilder Student Assistant, Collegiate Recovery Community, Person in long-term recovery


[1] Corrigan, P.W., Kuwabara, SA., O’Shaughnessy, J. (2009). The public stigma of mental illness and drug addiction: findings from a stratified random sample. Journal of Social Work. (9)(2):139-147.

[2] Barry, C.L., McGinty, E.E., Pescosolido, B.A., Goldman, H.H. (2014). Stigma, discrimination, treatment effectiveness, and policy: public views about drug addiction and mental illness. Psychiatric Services. (65)(10): 1269-1272.

[3] Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2016). 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: detailed tables-prevalence estimates, standard errors, p values, and sample sizes. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD.

[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Multiple Cause of Death, 1999-2015 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released 2016. Extracted by ONDCP from http://wonder.cdc.gov/mcd-icd10.html on December 8, 2016.

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