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Published On: May 10, 2023|Categories: Addiction and Substance Abuse|

Have you ever been called a name that just rubbed you the wrong way? Did it make you feel suddenly boxed in, or associated with something you didn’t really want to be associated with?

When you’re known by a particular name, it can leave you feeling all sorts of negative ways. You might feel like you suddenly can’t be anything different, or have to act a certain way or do certain things in order to live up to that name. Or, you may find yourself anxious to break out of this unwanted label.

It is for this very reason why it’s dangerous to refer to people as “alcoholics” or “addicts.” 

The danger of stigmas

Stigmas, according to the Miriam-Webster Dictionary, are “1. a set of negative and unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something; 2. a mark of shame or discredit.” Stigmas are placed on people when they are labeled with certain terms due to the connotations those terms carry. 

When people who are struggling with a substance use disorder are labeled with stigmatized names, they feel the burden of not only their disorder, but the weight of being labeled as well. This is why the terms “alcoholic” and “addict” are no longer proper vocabulary in discussions on these topics. 

Why the switch? 

In modern medicine and mental health treatment, doctors and mental healthcare professionals, including counselors, psychiatrists and psychologists, have made crucial discoveries in regards to addiction and the way it impacts the brain. 

One such realization was that addiction is not a choice — in years past, it was improperly assumed that those battling addiction chose the addiction: anyone struggling with alcohol chose it, anyone battling heroin use chose it. Now, however, we know that even though the first use was a choice, the way the body responded to repeated use was not. 

By referring to those who are battling addiction as “alcoholics” or “addicts,” we are holding on to this false assumption that they have chosen this life for themselves. Now that we know this isn’t true, it’s not fair to continue using this term. 

The American Addiction Centers puts it expertly: The term “alcoholism,” although commonly still used in everyday language, is considered outdated by addiction and health professionals because it carries a negative stigma and bias. Medical understanding of problematic alcohol consumption has progressed considerably. Today, clinicians understand that the condition is a mental health disorder and treat it as they would diabetes or high blood pressure.

In order to be respectful of the struggle that alcohol use or substance abuse is for many people, it is best to remove these terms from our vernacular entirely. 

What should I say instead? 

Obviously, if we remove certain terms, we need to have a way to still discuss the topic using different language; nor should we simply replace one stigmatizing term with another. There are a number of ways you can refer to someone without labeling them an “alcoholic” or “addict.” 

Most often, the easiest way is to simply say “someone who struggles with alcohol consumption,” or “one who battles addiction.” Instead of referring to them as the disease itself, refer to them as someone who is battling the disease. 

When you refer to someone as an “alcoholic,” it gives all the credit to the disorder; when you refer to someone as a person battling alcohol use disorder, on the other hand, it gives all the credit to the person. 

Odds are, the individual to whom you are referring does not want to be struggling with this disorder; by referring to them as someone who battles the disorder, you are giving them the credit they deserve in working to overcome the disease. In this way, they aren’t defined by what they struggle against. 

It comes down to respect 

Addiction is a lonely, and sometimes hopeless, road to travel. The people who have chosen recovery and sobriety as a lifestyle need as much support and encouragement as you can offer. While you might not support the choices they have made previously, you can support the choices they are making today by showing them the respect they deserve as people. 

By making the switch to the proper, industry accepted terminology, you can show support to those battling addiction by respecting their journey and their process in your language. Words are a powerful entity, and can be the force for positive change in the lives of many. 

Want to learn more?

If you’re interested in learning more about addiction treatment, and recovery programs for alcohol use disorder, reach out to Rehab After Work.


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