Our Words Have Power: Using Non-Stigmatizing Language to Talk About Addiction

Addiction is a serious disease and the way we talk about it is evolving. Words that were once used to describe people struggling with drug or alcohol addiction are changing, and for good reason. Learning and applying the appropriate language to substance use disorders (SUDs) is important in helping to de-stigmatize the disease and help those who struggle with it.

In this article, we explain what stigma is, how it impacts addiction, and how we can de-stigmatize addiction with our words. We also introduce the appropriate words to use when discussing addiction and discuss how to find help if you are struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol.

What Is Stigma and How Does It Impact Addiction?

You have probably heard the term stigma before. Stigma references discrimination against a place, nation, or group of people.1 It’s a result of inaccurate beliefs, generalizations, and biases that are projected onto a specific population.1 Stigmatization can result in several negative ramifications for those who are on the receiving end, and the consequences of it can be catastrophic.

There is a great deal of stigma surrounding those who have a substance use disorder. Unfortunately, because of stigmatizing thoughts, words, behaviors, and actions, many people with SUDs become significantly impacted. Addiction-related stigma is reinforced and perpetuated by the language we use to describe substance use disorder and those who have them. Stigmatizing language surrounding addiction can can:1

  • Lead to feelings of anger, fear, and pity in the general population, which contributes to people socially distancing themselves from people who are struggling with addiction.
  • Reduce the likelihood of those with an SUD to seek treatment, as they may be afraid of being judged or discriminated against.
  • Negatively impact the opinions and perceptions of healthcare workers, which may affect the quality of care they provide to patients with a SUD.
  • Impact the self-esteem of people with an SUD as other aspects of their identities are ignored or discarded.2

Destigmatizing Addiction with Our Words

It’s important to understand how and why the words you choose are so impactful. One of the first things to recognize is that addiction, like diabetes or depression, is a clinical disorder that requires professional treatment.

Addiction is defined as a chronic and relapsing brain disorder that results in compulsive substance use despite experiencing negative consequences as a result of substance use.3 Because the symptoms of addiction can include unflattering and often destructive behaviors that result in significant problems for themselves and their loved ones, people experiencing active addiction are often viewed differently than those who have diabetes, depression, or any other type of serious health issue.

People with a substance use disorder can oftentimes be judged by their behaviors rather than having those behaviors viewed as symptoms of an actual clinical disease. They are often seen as being morally flawed rather than individuals who are dealing with an actual medical disorder.1 Through language, however, you can separate the person from the disease and create space for them to receive the acceptance and support they need to treat their addiction.

Which Addiction Terms to Avoid and Which Ones to Use Instead

You can help end the stigma against addiction by being intentional with the words you use to describe this disease, as well as the individuals who have it. We all possess the power to elicit change through how we talk about certain topics – addiction included. With small modifications to your vocabulary, such as those suggested below, you can learn to be an ally to those struggling with addiction and help support them in getting the treatment they need for recovery.


  • Addict
  • User
  • Junkie
  • Substance user
  • Drunk
  • Alcoholic
  • Former addict
  • Reformed addict

Use Instead:

  • Patient
  • Person with a substance use disorder
  • Person who engages in unhealthy alcohol use
  • Person in recovery
  • Person in active use
  • Person who previously used drugs or alcohol


  • These replacement words make clear that the person has a substance use problem and that they themselves are not the problem1
  • Uses first-person language and avoid placing blame and punitive attitudes1


  • Abuse
  • Habit

Use Instead:

  • Substance use disorder
  • Drug addiction
  • Use, misuse, and used in unintended ways


  • The term “habit” can oversimplify and undermine the significance of the disease of addiction1
  • Both terms imply that the person is choosing to use drugs and alcohol and can easily choose to stop1
  • The term “abuse” has been shown to have a significant correlation with attitudes of punishment and judgment1


  • Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)

Use Instead:

  • Pharmacotherapy
  • Addiction medication
  • Medication for substance use disorder


  • It’s inaccurate to think that medications are simply a “replacement” and that the person is trading one addiction for another1
  • The term “medication-assisted treatment” implies that medication used in recovery should be temporary in nature1


  • Dirty
  • Clean

Use Instead:

  • Testing negative
  • Testing positive
  • Abstinent from drugs
  • Being in recovery
  • Not actively using alcohol or drugs


  • It uses non-stigmatizing language in the same way that it is used to describe other medical disorders1
  • They can help increase patients’ sense of self-efficacy and hope for change and recovery1


  • Addicted baby

Use Instead:

  • Baby born to a mother who used alcohol or drugs while pregnant
  • Newborn exposed to substances
  • Babies with symptoms of withdrawal from prenatal drug exposure


  • It uses non-stigmatizing language in the same way that it is used to describe other medical disorders1
  • Babies are born with symptoms of a withdrawal syndrome and are unable to be born with addiction1

Find Help for Addiction at AdCare

If you are struggling with a substance use disorder or you know someone who is, time is of the essence. At AdCare, our team of dedicated professionals can help you get the treatment you need. We can assist you in verifying your insurance coverage for addiction treatment and get you started with the rehab admissions process for our inpatient rehab in Rhode Island.

Don’t live another day in the grips of addiction. Get the help you need and call AdCare at today.

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AdCare has multiple locations throughout Massachusetts and Rhode Island, making it easily accessible to most parts of New England. We offer an integrated system of care and have been helping individuals and families struggling with addiction for 45 years. Take the next step toward recovery: learn more about our addiction treatment programs in MA and RI or learn about how rehab is affordable for everyone.