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Words Matter: Changing the Language of Addiction

Did you know that the word “addict” cannot be found in the most recent edition of the standard AP Stylebook? That’s because earlier this month, the Associated Press took a groundbreaking step in destigmatizing the disease of addiction – they removed the word “addict” as a noun. The 2017 AP Stylebook encourages phrasing like “they were addicted” or “people with addictions.”

This kind of person-first language is key. The language we use when referring to people speaks volumes about how we think about them. And how we think about things impacts our attitudes and approaches to addressing them. Calling someone an addict not only reduces them to just that, it also perpetuates stigmatizing perceptions that influence the efficacy of our social and public health policies for addressing them.

Person-first language is humanizing. When we use terminology like “addict,” we may unknowingly begin to objectify the person and strip away their individuality by minimizing the totality of who they are. This terminology often reduces the person into a predetermined box of perceptions and judgments that foster discrimination.

By placing the person first, the person is emphasized. Addiction is no longer the primary, defining characteristic of an individual, but one of several aspects of the whole person. We must speak, write and think in a way that acknowledges the human being first, rather than their condition or disease.

In 2014, SAMHSA released a National Survey on Drug Use and Health, that reported approximately 7.9 million adults in the United States had a co-occurring disorder, meaning both a mental health and a substance use condition. Because mental health challenges and substance use conditions are so historically connected, we must be intentional with our language every step of the way when talking about and encountering people living with these illnesses.

Conversations and reports about mental health and substance use challenges must be reframed to eliminate negative language reinforcing stigmatization, discrimination and isolation. One of the goals of Mental Health First Aid is to promote empowerment and strength when discussing your own or someone else’s mental health or substance use condition. And language is the first step. The course provides people with a greater understanding of the appropriate language to use and how to use it when beginning conversations about mental health and substance use challenges.

Get trained in Mental Health First Aid today to start thinking critically about the way you talk about mental health and substance use challenges. Because words matter.