• Screenshot 2019-04-05 01.57.19
  • Twitter Social Icon

©2019 by Health in Justice Action Lab: Changing the Narrative Initiative. Proudly created with Wix.com

Words Matter


Much of the language that has been used to describe substance use disorder and drug use is loaded with stigma and carries real world harm. Take the term "substance abuse" as an example: Child abuse, spousal abuse, these are criminal acts carried out by abusers. Calling addiction "substance abuse," or calling people who use drugs "substance abusers," further criminalizes a treatable health condition and perpetuates stigma. De-stigmatizing the language of addiction is a public health priority. 

This is not simply a matter of policing language. Rigorous research has proved that terms like "substance abuser" elicit bias and negative attitudes in health care and policymaking settings. One study by the Recovery Research Institute at Mass General Hospital found that describing a person as a “substance abuser” increased the likelihood of evoking more punitive attitudes. "Substance abusers" were more likely to be viewed as: less likely to benefit from treatment; more likely to benefit from punishment; and more likely to  be blamed for their illness. These results have been confirmed by the Johns Hopkins Stigma Lab and recovery scientist Robert Ashford

Alternatives to stigmatizing nouns and identifiers:

Terms and phrases to be avoided in specific context and situations:



Trying to move away from criminalization while simultaneously using words like "substance abuse" that further criminalize people runs at cross purposes to the goal of humanizing people who use drugs. In health care settings and in policymaking, it is critical to avoid stigmatizing language that is known to elicit negative attitudes that result in further punishment instead of treatment and compassion. Using person-first language can drastically improve people's lives by changing the public's assumptions and misconceptions about a marginalized group. 


Harmful language ultimately increases stigma on the individual, which reduces one's belief in the ability to change as well as their motivation to ask for help. 

Connect with Expert Sources:


Robert Ashford, recovery researcher, University of the Sciences


Brandon Bergman, PhD, associate director & research Scientist, Massachusetts General Hospital Recovery Research Institute at Harvard