Ch. 3: Considering the Language We Use

At this point, you have developed a general “big picture” about the topic of our course: substance use, substance misuse, and SUD. Throughout Module 1 so far you have read about alcohol and other substance use. You may not have noticed the language used to describe individuals involved with these substances or who experience substance-related problems. For example, you did not read about “substance users,” you read about individuals who engage in substance use (or misuse), you did not read about “alcoholics” or “addicts,” you read about individuals experiencing alcohol use disorder (AUD) or a substance use disorder (SUD).

Social workers have long been aware of the importance of the way we use language and the deleterious consequences of applying labels to people. You may find that many resources use stigmatizing labels and terms. Not only do labels tend to stereotype, stigmatize, and marginalize people, they also create a pessimistic mindset about the possibility for change. In the field of addictions, awareness about the harms associated with stigmatizing labels like “addict” or “alcoholic” are discussed with increasing frequency. As the field gradually becomes more conscious and aware of this problem in professional writing and speaking, it is important that we all become more conscientious about changing how we discuss individuals involved with substances or affected by someone’s substance use. It is a behavior, not a person’s defining characteristic.

Getting us thinking along these lines is the purpose for assigning the following reading:

  • Begun, A.L. (2016). Considering the language that we use: Well worth the effort. Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions, 16, 332-336.

This final chapter for Module 1, emphasizes the importance of paying attention to the language that we use in discussing and describing people who engage in alcohol or other drug (AOD) use/misuse who experience substance use disorders (SUDs). After reading the assigned article, remember to return here for the chapter and module conclusion.

When you are finished reading this brief article:

  • Begin to practice ways of changing the language that you use. For example, start by simply identifying stigmatizing labels used by others when you are reading, listening to radio, television, or movies, and talking about social work issues in your classes or with friends.
  • As a next step, think about creative ways of editing what you read or heard to remove the labels and describe people in terms of their experiences instead.
  • Think about how this might make a difference in how these individuals are viewed and how they might view themselves as a result.

Here is an exercise for you to practice these new skills. Imagine that you are the instructor for our course. First, read this hypothetical student discussion board posting and identify the 6 places where the use of language is of concern. Just click on your choices (some may be two-word phrases, others are single words) and see how you did.

Now, think about how you would suggest rephrasing each of the six problems. Here is one possible solution—many options exist! The point here is to practice the new skills related to the language that we use. Hopefully, you can better edit your own work before posting in our class discussions in the future.

I think that persons experiencing addiction should be able to benefit from treatment for pain, but health care professionals are worried about providing pain medications when there is a question about the actual need. It is kind of the same thing as giving alcohol to someone with an alcohol use disorder to make them feel better. People who misuse substances or have an addiction may believe their pain is worse than they can tolerate, but there may be alternative ways to effectively address pain that doctors and nurses can offer. Treating a person’s pain should be done with caution when there is a history of experiencing a substance use disorder, but it should also be done with respect.


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Theories and Biological Basis of Substance Misuse, Part 1 Copyright © by Dr. Audrey Begun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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