Hey Media: Please Stop Using The Word “Addict”

The Chicago Tribune recently published a powerful op-ed by a woman giving her personal story with regards to her sister’s lost struggle with opioid addiction. She talked about the shame that arises from the language used to describe her sister’s battle.  A wonderful piece. Vividly illustrating why language matters when talking about those struggling with substance use problems. The author states:

But it’s a chilling example of how derogatory word choice, stigma, and denial render families helpless in this health crisis.

What was not so inspiring, and incredibly ironic, was the title of the opinion piece.

Shame Won’t Help Opioid Addicts.”

I cringed when I read the title. It seems an editor at the Tribune did not get the message on the shaming and stigmatizing effect of describing people who struggle with substance use disorders as “addicts.”

This is not a crusade of a people trying to make this an issue of political correctness. There is a wealth of data out there to support the damaging effect of such language. The Associated Press gets it.  In 2017, they updated their stylebook to recommend that journalists use the term “person with addiction” instead of “addict.”

Yes, “person with addiction” does not make for a nifty title that generates social media shares and hits. “Addict” has much more of a visceral and emotional impact. It still comes down to being part of the solution or part of the problem for a few more social media shares. AP has chosen to be part of the solution. The Tribune, in using this title is part of the problem.

I am no saint on this issue. I have also been part of the problem. I have not gone through every post of mine, but I suspect the term “addict” appears more than once. I am trying to do better and do my best to ensure that I never refer to another person in that way. Do I refer to myself that way now and then?  I do. Again, I am trying to do better in describing my own journey.

I also have personal experience on this issue.  On multiple occasions, I have been called a “Junkie,” Crackhead, Drug addict, and yes, “drunk, drugged up loser” as if there is a shaming manual that people read from.  There is a shaming manual. It’s the media.  People take their cues from what they read and hear.

For another perspective on this, I reached out to a researcher who focuses on this issue and analyzing the data behind it. Robert Ashford, MSW  is currently a Ph.D. Student and Graduate Research Assistant at the University of the Sciences Substance Use Disorder Institute focusing on Behavioral Health Linguistics.

“For over 200 years in the United States, messages depicting substance use disorder and the recovery process have had a tangible impact on everything from public opinion to legislative policy.

Beginning the 1840s, Temperance Societies partnered with popular media outlets to advance campaigns that demonized individuals with alcohol use disorder as “inebriates,” or that those who “take the first drink…that leads to ruin”.

Not only did these media campaigns lead to the probation of alcohol – a failed American experiment began in 1919 – but also the proliferation of secretive, stigmatized, treatments for alcohol use disorder. These so-called “inebriate asylums” were the result of a decades-long campaign to discriminate against individuals that had a medical condition, what we now know to be a chronic disease of the brain appropriately labeled a severe substance use disorder.

Though the disease model has gained mainstream attention since 1956, when the American Medical Associated declared “alcoholism an illness”, and even further in 1987 when it was given the moniker of disease, it would appear that the mainstream media conglomerates and journalists have failed to learn the impact that their depictions of individuals with a substance use disorder have on the public and private treatment of human beings with a chronic disease.

The campaigns of the 1800 and 1900s have not stopped with our new understanding of substance use disorder, a belief that is rooted in decades of empirical evidence. In truth, they have grown increasingly negative.

One only need to look to covers of Time Magazine, depicting “Crack Kids”, or the individual “hooked” on alcohol and other drugs – or perhaps to the parlance of “junkies”, “addicts” and “substance abusers” all too common in most journalist’s depiction of the modern day opioid epidemic.

We may not have inebriate asylums in the country anymore, but we still have a health care and criminal justice system that marginalizes and stigmatizes individuals with what we know to be a disease – in large part due to medias discriminatory portrayal.

Researchers have continued to sound the alarm at the potential harm this language and characterization of substance use disorder can have in real-world settings. Medical professional’s delivery substandard care; a decrease in treatment and other help-seeking behavior; mass criminalization of substance users; the myths of the “addicted baby” and the “Narcan Party” – all real-world outcomes that are linked to the way speak about individuals with a severe substance use disorder.

While journalists and media outlets are not the only cause of the country’s inadequate response, it is past time they take ownership of the role they do play. An extra 5 words of copy to state “a person with a substance use disorder” rather than “that junkie” goes a long way in bringing humanity back to a discriminated against a group of Americans – a community that is estimated to be over 23 million large. It may not solve the opioid crisis or any future substance use crisis this country is likely to have, but it will make a difference.”

Let’s all try to be part of the solution and not part of the problem when we talk about our family members, friends or anyone struggling with substance use issues. Language matters. Changing it does not cost a dime but has a long-term positive impact.

Here are resources that that has an easy to read ggraphicsSay This, Not That)  on ways you can change how you talk about addiction.