Language Matters in the Recovery Movement

Olivia Pennelle

Language matters. The words we use to describe substance use disorder, people using drugs, and people in recovery has the potential to cause a significantly detrimental impact in a number of ways, such as access to treatment and recovery outcomes. 

Language matters in addiction and recovery

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Our language can influence whether people view substance use disorder as a moral issue, requiring punishment rather than treatment like any other medical condition. This is at the heart of stigma, which is defined as “an attribute, behavior, or condition that is socially discrediting.”

Faces & Voices of Recovery’s Work to Reduce Stigma

Through our advocacy over the years, Faces & Voices of Recovery has helped to end stigma for those seeking recovery. By encouraging tens of thousands of people across the nation to share their stories through our program Our Stories Have Power, we have helped further that mission. We believe in giving people in recovery and their family members the messaging and the language that they can use to talk about their recovery. 

The recovery community is speaking out to educate friends, neighbors, policymakers and the media about the reality of recovery so that others can get the help they need.

Recovery Science on the Importance of Language

Research conducted by recovery scientists proves that the language we use:

  • can increase stigma, which already acts as a major barrier to accessing care
  • can negatively influence the care we receive
  • can influence recovery outcomes
  • can have a detrimental impact on attitudes towards people in recovery and those who use substances

Stigmatizing substance use and recovery means that substance use disorder is still seen as a moral, criminal, or social issue. In a study conducted by the Recovery Research Institute, participants were asked how they felt about two people using drugs and alcohol.

Recovery Research Institute on stigma

Source: Recovery Research Institute

The study found that when participants considered a person described as a “substance abuser,” they thought of that person as:

  • Less likely to benefit from treatment
  • More likely to benefit from punishment
  • More likely to be socially threatening
  • More likely to be blamed for their substance related difficulties and less likely that their problem was the result of an innate dysfunction over which they had no control
  • More able to control their substance use without help.

Recent research by scientists Robert Ashford, Austin Brown, and Dr. Brenda Curtis builds upon this existing research by measuring the bias elicited when certain common phrases and words are used when referring to people with substance use disorder and those using drugs. 

They found that phrases like “relapse,” “addict,” “alcoholic,” and “substance abuser” are strongly associated with negative bias among the general public, behavioral health professionals, and medical professionals — leading ultimately to explicit discrimination. 

Given that each year 25 percent of people with acute substance use disorder don’t seek treatment because they believe they will be stigmatized by friends, neighbors, or employers, it is essential that we continue to change our language. 

The study showed that using person-centered and medical language elicited more positive responses. Overall, the study concluded by recommending that we stop using stigmatizing terms like “alcoholic” and “addict” in public.  The research does not suggest, however, that we cease using these terms in the privacy of mutual-aid meetings. 

So when we’re not in a meeting, what language should we use?

Quick reference guide for suggested recovery terms 

The following infographic is a helpful reference guide to use when referring to people who have a substance use disorder, who use drugs and alcohol, who have returned to drug use, and who take medication as a pathway of recovery. 

Recovery dialects

Source: Drug and Alcohol Dependence, volume 189 (August 2018). Ashford, R.D., Brown, A.M., & Curtis, B. (2018) Substance use, recovery, and linguistics.

We encourage you to think about the impact of your words and consider informing others when you hear them using these stigmatizing terms. Language matters!

Become a member of the global recovery advocacy movement. Together we will eliminate the stigma of addiction and recovery. Apply today. 

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Olivia Pennelle

Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and content strategist. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to providing the ingredients to live a fulfilling life in recovery. Liv also co-founded the podcast Breaking Free: Your Recovery. Your Way. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and publications, including The Fix, Ravishly, Workit Health, Grok Nation, and STAT News.

1 Comment

  1. Sarah Selley on August 20, 2019 at 4:32 pm

    I agree w the concept of adjusting the words that describe a person w a substance use disorder & how the negative implications of other derogatory ways of saying the same thing can mental hold you back if you are easily persuaded. Most ppl are quick to judge & any chance we can positively motivate lasting change in ourselves & the perception of others is a good thing.

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