Words Matter: Why Don’t We Say “Addict”?

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Addiction word cloud in red on a white background

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Have you noticed that on this blog, we say things like “person with a substance use disorder” or “someone who’s addicted to drugs” instead of “substance abuser” or “addict”? There are reasons for that.

Seeing the whole person

Some words carry bigger meanings than you may realize. “Substance abuser,” “drug user,” or “addict,” for instance, make it sound like the person being described is nothing but their substance use disorder, drug use, or addiction.

But that isn’t true, of course. Every person has many qualities, likes and dislikes, hopes, dreams, stresses, and relationships.

So, saying “person with a substance use disorder” is more accurate. It means you’re describing a real, complete, and complex person—one who happens to have that disorder.

A brain disorder

Words like “addict” are misleading in another way, too. We know addiction is a disorder that happens in the brain. The first time a person takes a drug, it’s their choice—but what happens in their body and brain after that may be less and less under their control. Some people are simply more likely than others to develop a drug problem.

Why is it important to realize this? Using words that separate a person from their substance use disorder can reduce the shame some people feel about having the problem—and make it easier for them to seek help.

One study even found that highly trained doctors and therapists who treat people with substance use disorders were slightly more likely to recommend punishment for people who were described as “substance abusers,” and more likely to recommend therapy for those described as “people with substance use disorders.”

Remember: When you talk or even think about people who have a substance use disorder, the words you use matter.

Learn why addiction is a brain disease.

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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