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Brain science, and how our language can erase shame and stigma

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain; they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long lasting and can lead to many harmful, often self-destructive, behaviors.”  That’s a mouthful, but long story short: we’re talking about a brain disease. And the way we talk about that brain disease counts.

In the past, “addicts” and “alcoholics” were often seen as lacking in moral fiber or willpower, but brain science is changing that view. Still, the terms “addiction” and “alcoholism” continue to stigmatize and silence people and families who need help.

The non-profit Shatterproof wants to help end the shame and stigma around Substance Use Disorder by swapping in a whole new vocabulary about this brain disease. Here’s what Shatterproof suggests we remove from our lexicons and use instead:

  • Addict = person with Substance Use Disorder
  • Alcoholic = person with Alcohol Use Disorder
  • Drug problem or habit = Substance Use Disorder
  • Drug abuse = drug misuse, harmful use
  • Drug abuser = person with Substance Use Disorder
  • Clean = abstinent, not actively using
  • Dirty = actively using
  • A clean drug screen = testing negatively for substance use
  • A dirty drug screen = testing positively for substance use
  • Former addict/alcoholic = person in recovery, person in long-term recovery
  • Opioid replacement or methadone maintenance = medication assisted treatment (MAT)

When we start talking about – and treating – Substance Use Disorder as a physiological disease with physical, psychological, social and spiritual ramifications, we'll be able to head down the right road to treatment and recovery.

Shatterproof,, shame, stigma, language

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