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CMHA recognizes National Addictions Awareness Week

Recovery Language: A Guide

Here are some ways to avoid using language that stigmatizes substance use and addiction:

  1. Use “people-first language.” For instance, refer to “person who uses substances”, or “person who has a substance use disorder”; and not a “drug user”, “addict” or “alcoholic”. This is more neutral language that helps to maintain the individuality of the person.
  2. Refer to “substance use” rather than “substance abuse”. “Abuse” or “abuse” has been shown to contribute to negative outcomes, and may be more likely to occur.
  3. Choose to recognize that substance use disorders are health disorders. They are not the result of any kind of character flaw or lack of personal willpower. In fact, substance use disorders are the most common mental health disorder.
  4. Choose to refer to “drug poisoning” rather than to “drug overdose” as the latter perpetuates the myth that a person has “brought this on themselves”.
  5. Referring to a “drug suit,” or “drug of choice” implies that the person can simply choose to stop. Refer to “the substance a person is using”.
  6. Choose language that promotes the recovery process. This means not describing a person being “clean” or “dirty” but rather “not currently using substances”. Also, refer to a person who is not using substances, or is reducing use, as being “in recovery”.
  7. Avoid perpetuating negative stereotypes and biases through the use of slang and pejorative names.
  8. The use of non-stigmatizing language also applies when describing a person with other mental health problems and illnesses.


Michael P. Botticelli. Memo: Changing the Language of Addiction, Office of the National Drug Control Policy. 2017.

Lauren M. Broyles, Ingrid A. Binswanger, Jennifer A. Jenkins, Deborah S. Finnell, Babalola Faseru, Alan Cavaiola, Marianne Pugatch & Adam J. Gordon. Confronting Inadvertent Stigma and Pejorative Language in Addiction Scholarship: A Recognition and Response . Abuse Substance  Vol. 35, Iss. 3.2014

John F. Kelly, Richard Saitz & Sarah Wakeman. Language, Substance Use Disorders, and Policy: The Need to Reach Consensus on an Addiction-Ary Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly  Vol 34, Iss 1.2016

MG Weiss, J Ramakrishna, & D. Somma. Health-related stigma: Rethinking Concepts and Interventions. Psychol Health Med . 2006; 11: 277-87.

Michael P. Botticelli, & Howard K.Koh. Changing the Language of Addiction. JAMA October 4, 2016 Volume 316, Number 13 .