Words have power! People first!

August 15, 2016

The New England ATTC Network Regional Center Staff
Dan Squires, PhD, MPH, Director
Leslie Cohen, BS, Co-Director
Sara Becker, PhD, Evaluation Director
Denise Bayles, BM, Project Coordinator
Raymond Sanchez, Application Coordinator
Stacey Howley, BS, Workforce Development Coordinator

The language used to refer to people can exert a powerful impact on both perceptions and expectations.

For example, if someone is referred to as a “survivor”, assumptions—likely favorable—are made immediately, and without specific details.  Likewise, however, if someone is referred to as a “victim”, assumptions—likely more variable and less favorable—are made, even though both references could easily refer to the same individual in the same context.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy: “For far too many people living with addiction, they feel that they are living with stigma. Many people see addiction, still, as a character flaw or a bad choice. They don’t recognize that addiction is in fact a chronic disease of the brain. If we shift that cultural perception of addiction, it will make it easier for people to get help." Surgeon General: We Have To ‘Change How Our Country Sees Addiction’
Chronic condition vs. moral failing

One area (among many) where the use of language is particularly impactful is in addiction treatment and recovery. For many decades, those who have struggled with addiction have been subjected to a range of pejorative labels and even encouraged to self-identify by often well-meaning treatment and recovery entities in ways that are inherently negative (e.g. addict, alcoholic, etc.).  With the recent epidemic of overdose deaths, the use of these terms has become even more prevalent—especially in the media.  

In contrast to the impressions created by such references, scientific and medical advances have helped to clarify that addiction is not simply the product of moral deficits or personal failings. Rather, addiction is better understood the way many other complex health challenges like cancer, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, etc. are—as a multi-dimensional, multi-factorial health condition that no person in the history of humanity was ever born hoping to experience. Why then do we insist on continuing to embrace and encourage the use of derogatory, degrading language to describe not only those who struggle, but even those who are “survivors” of addiction? Are there not better ways to refer to those of us both within and beyond the struggle of addiction that better inspire the hope, determination, and grit that all survivors come to possess?  Unequivocally, the answer is YES!

People first language 

For more than 20 years, the Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network has advocated for those struggling with addiction through a focus on developing and supporting the addiction treatment and recovery workforce.  Recently the entire ATTC Network implemented an initiative to promote the use of “people first” language.  People first language encourages reference to people in a way that recognizes their humanity and individuality first (e.g. a person struggling with addiction), as opposed to language that defines people by their struggle or problem—especially in an implicitly derogatory manner (e.g. “addict”).  It also eliminates related language that is inherently judgmental like “clean” or “dirty.”

It is the Network’s hope that others across the spectrum of addiction treatment and recovery will make similar efforts. To assist with encouraging changes, the Network will soon be posting a list of suggested people-first references, many of which have been encouraged by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.

It is time to stop the misguided blame and unnecessary stigma associated with both addiction and recovery. The use of affirming language inspires hope and advances recovery. 

Language matters.  Words have power.  People first!

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