Chapter 1.0: Introduction

Ch. 1.4: Considering the Language We Use

The language we use is important.

For example, a 2010 study showed that doctors have a more negative view of their patients and were more likely to view them punitively and personally responsible when they were referred to as “abusers” compared to when they were referred to as a “person with a substance use disorder” ( It is important that alcohol and other drug treatment counselors work to replace disparaging terms such as “abuser” “addict” “dirty” clean” with “person first” language such as, “person with an alcohol use disorder” (AUD) or “person with a substance use disorder” (SUD).

Social workers have long been aware of the importance of the way we use language and the deleterious consequences of applying labels to people. You may find that many resources use stigmatizing labels and terms. Not only do labels tend to stereotype, stigmatize, and marginalize people, they also create a pessimistic mindset about the possibility for change. In the field of addictions, awareness about the harms associated with stigmatizing labels like “addict” or “alcoholic” are discussed with increasing frequency. As the field gradually becomes more conscious and aware of this problem in professional writing and speaking, it is important that we all become more conscientious about changing how we discuss individuals involved with substances or affected by someone’s substance use. It is a behavior, not a person’s defining characteristic.

  • Begin to practice ways of changing the language that you use. For example, start by simply identifying stigmatizing labels used by others when you are reading, listening to radio, television, or movies, and talking about social work issues in your classes or with friends.
  • As a next step, think about creative ways of editing what you read or heard to remove the labels and describe people in terms of their experiences instead.
  • Think about how this might make a difference in how these individuals are viewed and how they might view themselves as a result.


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Introduction to Substance Use Disorders by Patricia Stoddard Dare and Audrey Begun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.