The language around substance use issues can help or hinder recovery. That’s the message of this year’s National Addictions Awareness Week (NAAW), an annual campaign from November 12 to 18 led by Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. This year’s NAAW theme is Words Matter, drawing attention to how the use of stigmatizing language can perpetuate false and harmful myths around substance use, and act as a barrier to recovery.
Why “Words Matter” with substance use and addiction
- Words have a powerful impact on the way we see the world, and can perpetuate the stigma of substance use. The words we use can have a negative impact, even if we have no intention of causing harm.
- What is stigma? Stigma marks a person as different or damaged; it devalues and can dehumanize a person who has a substance use or other socially-discredited health disorder.
- Language can affect how the public thinks about substance use and recovery. Research demonstrates that the use of certain words and terminology can create biases that influence how society treats people and groups.
- Words can also have an impact on the individual who uses substances, impacting how people think about themselves, and about their ability to make changes in their lives, including whether or not to seek health care.
- While words can cause and perpetuate stigma, they also have the power to undo stigma. Using the “language of recovery” can inspire hope and promote recovery.
- The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction changed its name this year, eliminating the term “Substance Abuse”. This is an acknowledgement that words do, indeed, matter.
- Recognizing that words matter is sometimes disparagingly called “political correctness.” Those hurt by stigmatizing language are sometimes dismissed as “overly sensitive”. These terms ignore the power and the negative impact that words can have.
To help combat stigma, CMHA encourages the public to STOP and consider whether language used:
- Stereotypes people with substance use issues?
- Trivializes people with substance use issues?
- Offends people with substance use concerns?
- Patronizes people with substance use issues by treating them as if they were not as good as other people?
NAAW is an opportunity for Canadians to learn more about substance misuse, prevention, and treatment. In Canada, it is estimated that approximately 21 per cent of the population (roughly six million people) will meet the criteria for addiction in their lifetime.