Be Careful How and What You Say to a Recovering Addict

Be Careful How and What You Say to a Recovering Addict

Using certain types of language when talking to addicts can both aid and hinder recovery. Learn how to help an addict with these language tips.

Addiction has such a long history, and has affected every group of persons, that there is an abundance of language to talk about it.  Portrayals and discussions of substance abuse and other addictions have spread far into mainstream culture, and are not simply the purview of those affected by addiction. It is little wonder that most people, whether or not they have been acquainted with addiction, have some knowledge of how to talk about it. The question is what language will best support those going through the recovery process.

Sometimes, unintentionally, words can actually get in the way of recovery. In this blog post we will consider some guidelines for how to use language with addiction, based on a recent editorial in the journal Substance Abuse .

To begin with, the language we use should be “people-first language.” In the past, language for people who suffer from addictions has often not reflected that they are individuals. Instead, it has referred to people based on their group membership. For example, “addicts,” or “alcoholics.” Person-first language is language that recognises that whatever their condition, people are individuals. Appropriate language from this perspective includes “persons with addiction” or “a person with an alcohol addiction.”

In addition to putting people first, language should reflect the medical nature of addiction. There are many colloquial or everyday terms that can be used in connection with substance abuse, such as “junkie,” “habit.”” Such terms obscure the medical nature of addiction as a disease, and in some cases hide the harm that results from addiction. Therefore, using terms that characterise addiction as a health issue are preferred. Such language includes terms such as “substance use disorder” and “alcohol addiction.”

Another consideration for language is that it should promote recovery. Whether we are aware of it or not, language can subtly reinforce the notion that recovery is a difficult process. For example, terms such as “resistant” and “unmotivated” used in relation to people in recovery treatment classify people in a negative light and can undermine their recovery. It is preferred to use terms such as “has not begun” or “experiencing ambivalence to change” which focus on choices those in recovery are making.

Finally, slang and idioms are to be avoided. When we use these, we often perpetuate negative stereotypes and biases about addiction.

Several caveats are in order. First, when communicating with clients, it may be necessary to use language that is most appropriate and can be understood. So, sometimes a client may use terms that are not the best choices, and we may consciously use the same terms to facilitate rapport. Nevertheless, we can model more appropriate terms.

Secondly, language is fluid and changing. Words that were used in the past are no longer the best choices, and what we use today may in turn fall out of use. As language itself evolves, it is important to be aware of how new meanings potentially affect best practice.

In the end, these guidelines are meant to support people in their recovery, and that purpose should be the primary consideration, rather than the right-ness or wrong-ness of a particular word.

If you are concerned about addiction, please contact one of our specialists today.