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Speaking About Substance Use Disorder

By DeAnza Bonzelaar

How we talk to someone–the words and tone we use–can often be just as or more important than the content of what we say. This is no less true when it comes to addiction and how we speak to and about people who are struggling with substance use disorder. There is already a stigma associated with those who use drugs as people who are “dangerous, incapable of managing treatment, or at fault for their condition.”¹ If people feel this stigma, it might prevent them from receiving the well intentions of whoever is talking to them or even from entering treatment. We must be more careful with our words.

The table that follows is adapted from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It lists appropriate replacements for common words used in substance use conversations. The primary reasons for using different words or phrases are: to speak in first-person and therefore differentiate between the person having an illness and being the illness; to speak of the illness in medical terms the same way you would any other disease; and to avoid terms that place blame.


Instead of

Person with a substance use disorder; Person with an opioid use disorder; Person with opioid addiction
Addict; User; Junkie; Substance or Drub Abuser
Person with alcohol use disorder; Person who misuses alcohol; Person who engages in unhealthy or hazardous alcohol use
Alcoholic; Drunk
Person in recovery or long-term recovery; Person who previously used drugs
Former addict; Reformed addict
Substance use disorder; Drug addiction
Use (for illicit drugs); Misuse (for prescription medications used other than prescribed)
  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Words Matter: Preferred Language for Talking about Addiction,” June 23, 2021.

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