Changing the Conversation: Transform Stigmatizing Language to Reflect the Hope of Recovery!

by: Jennifer Faringer, M.S.Ed. CPP-G, NCADD-RA Director

Substance Use Disorder (SUD) is a chronic brain disease from which people can and do recover every day. Yet too often, the terminology used to describe SUDs further stigmatizes individuals with a substance use disorder (as well as their family members). Use of words such as addict, alcoholic, drug habit, clean/dirty, all tend to suggest that the problematic use of substances is essentially a moral failing.

These terms imply that choice or lack of willpower or character determine one’s use of substances when the disease of addiction is far more complex than that. The terms do not take into consideration current research that shows that addictive substances and behaviors (alcohol, tobacco, other drugs and problem gambling) and their repeated use alters an individual’s brain chemistry and the functioning of their brain circuitry, often resulting in a diagnosable disorder.

The term abuse, in and of itself, is more closely associated with a punitive response and with negative attitudes which are more likely to result in a in a diminished quality of care and treatment outcomes. The American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) have recommended adopting language that is less stigmatizing.

1963 – American Public Health Association adopted an official statement on alcoholism, identifying it as a treatable illness.
1967 – AMA passed a resolution identifying alcoholism as a “complex” disease and recognizes that medical components are medicine’s responsibility.
1987 – AMA recognized that drug-related diseases and their treatment are a legitimate part of medical practice.

Person-first language is being adopted across multiple disciplines for better describing individuals with a range of disabilities or medical conditions. This includes substance use, making it important to use the terms “person with a substance use disorder” or “person with an alcohol use disorder” rather than an abuser, addict or alcoholic.

Another phrase important in recognizing and celebrating the hope of recovery is “person in long-term or sustained recovery” rather than referring to the person as “clean.” The person in recovery (and there are multiple paths to recovery) exemplifies one who has engaged in a lifelong process of healthy growth and positive change.

Additionally, it’s important to avoid using terms such as “replacement” or “substitution” therapies when referring to the treatments available to help individuals recover from SUDs. These terms imply that the person in recovery is simply substituting one drug for another. Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) and Medication Supported Recovery (MSR) refer to the therapeutic use of any medication that is approved to treat substance use disorders in combination with counseling or psychosocial support.

Help transform the conversation from the use of stigmatizing language to one of health, hope and recovery!


For further information and resources, visit the NCADD-RA’s website at or the Facebook page at

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