When talking about opioid use disorder and addiction, language matters

Using “person-first” language is an important aspect of addressing opioid and substance misuse.

The phrase

As communities across Michigan continue to address the state’s opioid epidemic, the right language can help change our conversations and narratives around opioid misuse. Using inclusive, person-first language shifts the ways in which we think about addiction and opioid use disorder from moral failings or character flaws to a medical disorder and chronic brain diseases.

Person-first language places the individual first, acknowledging identity as a person and the nature of opioid misuse as a disease, rather than placing moral judgement. For example, referring to someone as living with an opioid use disorder is less harmful than referring to them as an “addict” or “drug abuser.”

Using person-first language helps minimize stigma around opioid and substance use disorders. Stigma refers to the negative associations, attitudes, beliefs and actions we have toward people living with an opioid or substance use disorder. Many people who deal with opioid use disorders or who are in recovery face blame and judgment related to language that suggests they are morally at fault for their disease or that describes them solely through the lens of their addiction. For instance, negative labels such as “junkie” or “crackhead” shame an individual for substance misuse. Many of these stigmatizing terms are deeply ingrained within our culture, and continued use of this language not only influences our perceptions, attitudes and interactions with others, but also often discourages those who are most in need from coming forward for treatment and support.

As author David Sheff writes in his book Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy, when we put aside our biases and recognize that people with substance use disorders aren’t immoral, weak, or less than, “blame, shame and anger can be replaced with compassion.”

Some additional examples of person-first language include:

Use person-first language such as...

Instead of...

  • Person with a substance or opioid use disorder
  • Person-in-recovery or person in long-term recovery
  • Addict (or former addict, reformed addict)
  • Drug abuser
  • User
  • Junkie
  • Opioid/substance use or misuse
  • Opioid/substance abuse
  • Habit
  • Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT)
  • Medication treatment for opioid use disorder
  • Opioid substitution replacement therapy
  • Testing negative
  • In recovery or remission
  • Not currently/actively taking or using drugs
  • Clean
  • Testing positive
  • Person using drugs
  • Dirty

Table adapted from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (2020)

Shifting our language around opioid use disorder and addiction can encourage others to more openly discuss serious matters of opioid misuse with loved ones and healthcare professionals. Reducing stigma and helping connect individuals to prevention and recovery resources can help address the opioid epidemic. Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Spotlight on Opioids offers a range of additional strategies that families, community members, educators, and healthcare providers can use for understanding and addressing opioid use disorder issues.

Learn more about person-first language and preventing opioid misuse in your community through Michigan State University Extension’s Michigan Substance Use, Prevention, Education, and Recovery (MiSUPER) initiative.

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