Pop culture often portrays drug addiction as a personal moral failure rather than a medical illness. News stories use words like “epidemic” and “crisis” to describe – and sensationalize – opioid statistics. People who use opioids are inappropriately labelled “addicts” or “users.”
That kind of stigmatizing language harms people who use drugs and often makes them feel ashamed of their lives, and less likely to reach out for help or seek treatment.
“Criticizing a person for using drugs is like criticizing a person with diabetes for eating a chocolate bar,” says Dr. David Saunders, a physician counsellor who specializes in opioid-assisted treatment and addiction at the Open Door clinic in Dartmouth and Direction 180 in Halifax.
He also works as a rehabilitation medical consultant at Crosbie House in New Minas, N.S., and serves as a counsellor for other physicians in the Doctors Nova Scotia Professional Support Program.
“People with addiction use drugs and engage in behaviours compulsively by definition,” he says. “It is what it is. This is not an issue to criticize but to accept.”
Dr. Saunders says it’s time to use different words when discussing drug use and the people who use drugs. “I always strive to not use the terms ‘clean’ and ‘dirty,’” he says.
Instead of saying “former drug addict,” try saying “a person who has used drugs.” Instead of using the word “clean,” go with “a person in recovery” or “people with lived experience.” (check out this list by Health Canada for more examples).
Using non-judgmental language when you discuss substance use disorder is not only more respectful and compassionate, it can also save lives.
According to the First Nations Health Authority in British Columbia, it reduces the isolation and shame people living with addiction experience, helping them feel safe and valued.
The way you speak to people who have used or are using drugs also matters. Health Canada suggests addressing the person first before speaking about their substance use.
Using people-first language reinforces the concept that a person’s condition, illness or behaviour is not their defining characteristic. For example, describe an individual as a “person with an opioid-use disorder” rather than an “opioid addict.”
For Dr. Saunders, it’s about reducing the judgment people who use drugs often endure. “Clients express concern about others judging them,” he says. “Often this relates to medical services, such as, ‘When they hear I am on methadone, they think I just want drugs and they don’t listen to me.’”
It can also relate to judgment they’ve experienced from family members. The stigma of drug use can isolate people from others at a time when they should be reaching out for services and support. This leads to direct, detrimental effects on the health of people who use drugs.
Dr. Saunders notes his deliberate use of the word “client” when he works with people who are struggling with addiction.
“They prefer the term ‘client’ to ‘patient,’ as they feel the patient idea stigmatizes them and indicates there is something wrong with them,” he says. “I prefer to suggest there are so many things right with them.”
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