Treating people who use substances with respect improves health outcomes and helps save lives.
We encourage the use of respectful, non-stigmatizing language when describing substance use disorders, addiction and people who use drugs.
Whether it is used in a healthcare setting or in the news media, negative and stigmatizing language discredits people who use drugs and can result in discrimination. Stigmatization contributes to isolation and means people will be less likely to access services. This has a direct, detrimental impact on the health of people who use drugs.
Change the Conversation Regarding Overdose
Use people-first language. This means referring to a person before describing his or her behaviour or condition. This is important because it acknowledges that a person’s condition, illness or behaviour is not that person’s defining characteristic. “Person with a cocaine-use disorder” instead of “cocaine user” or “addict.”
Use language that reflects the medical nature of substance use disorders. There are a multitude of factors contributing to drug addiction, ranging from personal factors to social, environmental and political ones. Avoid terms that reinforce a belief that addiction is a failure of morals or personality, rather than a medical issue. “Addictive disease” and “substance use disorder” instead of “abuser” or “junkie.”
Use language that promotes recovery. This means healthcare professionals should use language that conveys optimism and supports recovery, and respects the person’s autonomy. “Opted not to” and “not in agreement with the treatment plan” instead of “unmotivated” or “non-compliant.”
Avoid slang and idioms. Slang terms and idioms have negative connotations and a significant level of stigma attached to them. While slang and idioms are rarely used in professional literature, they are also important to avoid when speaking to other colleagues or healthcare professionals. “Positive” or “negative” when referring to drug tests, instead of “dirty” or “clean.”
This document describes how stigma influences health and provides recommendations about how to use respectful language in healthcare settings and beyond.
Northern Health has a developed a number of excellent resources as part of their ''Stop Stigma. Save Lives'' Campaign.