Talking about Substance Use: Why Language Matters

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As a mental health strategist in the workplace, my primary mission is widespread mental health literacy – improving language, critical thinking, communication, and the application of knowledge – which involves enhancing people’s understanding of how mental health fits in the conversation about employee well-being and the positive bottom-line impact on business.

In our substance-rich work cultures (if we’re willing to see it and talk about it), we often unknowingly use harmful language. Stigma is a societal/cultural judgment or bias that can lead to the marginalization of individuals based on certain characteristics or conditions. It can be conscious or subconscious.

We often use harmful language even when trying to help or in casual conversation, even as we build support programs and materials. Referring to a person as an “alcoholic,” “addict,”  or “abuser” can be stigmatizing due to the negative connotations associated with these terms.

In the context of problematic drug use and addiction (including alcohol), here are some reasons why using these terms contributes to stigma:

  1. Labeling and Stereotyping: The terms “alcoholic,” “abuser,” or “addict” often carry strong stereotypes, suggesting a lack of control, moral failing, or weakness. These labels oversimplify complex issues and may contribute to a narrow and negative perception of the individual.
  2. Blame and Shame: These terms can imply a sense of blame and shame, making it more challenging for individuals to seek help or discuss their struggles openly. It may perpetuate the idea that a substance use disorder is solely a result of personal failure rather than a complex interplay of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors.
  3. One-dimensional Perception: Labeling someone as an “alcoholic,” “addict,” or “user/abuser” can reduce their identity to this one aspect of their life. This oversimplification ignores individuals’ multifaceted nature and experiences, hindering a holistic understanding of their challenges.
  4. Barriers to Seeking Help: Stigmatizing language can act as a barrier to seeking help. Individuals may fear judgment or discrimination, preventing them from reaching out for support and treatment that could be beneficial in overcoming substance-related issues.
  5. Impact on Mental Health, Social Health, and Overall Health: Stigmatizing language contributes to the social isolation and discrimination experienced by individuals with substance use disorders. This can negatively impact their mental health, exacerbating feelings of shame, guilt, and low self-esteem. It can increase isolation, disconnection, and social conflict. Research confirms negative bias within the healthcare system. Most healthcare professionals are ill-equipped to deal with the complex interconnections of other health issues and substance use disorders, exacerbating the negative health outcomes.

To foster a more compassionate and supportive work environment, we can use person-first language, emphasizing that an individual is experiencing challenges related to substance use rather than labelling them. This shift helps promote understanding, reduces judgment, and encourages open conversations about mental health and substance use issues. Here is a good language resource to review:

Please note: Some people in recovery may feel empowered by using the terms “alcoholic” or “addict” to refer to themselves. There are several reasons:

  1. Acknowledgment and Acceptance: Using these terms can be a way for individuals to acknowledge and accept their struggles with substance use. It represents a crucial step in the recovery process by recognizing the issue and taking responsibility for seeking help.
  2. Empowerment Through Ownership: Identifying as an “alcoholic” or “addict” allows individuals to take ownership of their experiences and challenges. It can be a way to reclaim control over their narrative and actively participate in recovery.
  3. Community and Connection: Embracing these labels can create a sense of belonging to a community of individuals with similar experiences. This connection with others facing similar challenges fosters a supportive environment where individuals feel understood and accepted.
  4. Challenging Stigma: Some individuals may use these terms to challenge the societal stigma surrounding addiction. By openly identifying as an “alcoholic” or “addict,” they may aim to break down stereotypes, promote understanding, and advocate for empathy and compassion toward those dealing with substance use disorders.
  5. Personal Growth and Transformation: Embracing these labels can signify a commitment to personal growth and transformation. It reflects a willingness to confront and address the challenges associated with addiction, fostering a positive mindset focused on recovery.
  6. Encouraging Others to Seek Help: Publicly using terms like “alcoholic” or “addict” can serve as a powerful example for others who may be struggling in silence. It sends a message that seeking help is a courageous and commendable choice, potentially inspiring others to take similar steps toward recovery.

It’s important to note that individual experiences vary, and not everyone may choose to identify using these terms. Recovery is a personal journey; individuals may find empowerment through various approaches. Ultimately, the key is to foster an environment that encourages understanding, support, non-judgment, and the pursuit of well-being.

If you are interested in learning more about how to talk about substance use in the workplace, please contact us.

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