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Using Person First Language

You can help reduce the stigma surrounding addiction and substances by choosing language that emphasizes the individual.
Words Matter
Language is a Powerful Tool
The words we use can affect the way people receive and perceive our message. Our words can convey support, understanding and encouragement. Our words can also cause harm and create barriers to treatment and recovery. That's why we strongly encourage the use of person first language when discussing addiction or substance use disorder. Doing so will help end the stigma surrounding addiction and those who use substances.
Guiding Principles
Communicating About Substance Use and Addiction
Focus on People

Person first terminology focuses on using language that reflects we are all people first. For example, identifying someone as an ‘addict’ is dehumanizing. It links a substance use disorder to a person’s individual identity. 

Person First Language Law

A person first approach is non-judgmental and does not define a person by a health condition. In fact, New York State adopted “Person First” legislation in 2007, requiring the use of ‘person first’ language.

Lived Experiences and Language Use

Individuals with lived experiences may not use person first language when sharing their personal stories. Stigma can be internalized so this list may be helpful for them as well.

Person First Language Glossary
Terms to Avoid & What to Use Instead

Use the glossary below to find examples of stigmatizing words and language, along with suggestions on what to use to support a person first approach. 

Instead of saying: Abuse

Consider saying:

  • Use (for drugs)
  • Misuse (for prescription medications)
Instead of saying: Abuser

Consider saying:

  • A person with or experiencing substance use disorder. Person who misuses substances.  
Instead of saying: Addict

Consider saying:

  • Person with substance use disorder
Instead of saying: Addicted Baby

Consider saying:

  • Baby born of a parent who used substances while pregnant
  • Baby with signs of substance withdrawal from prenatal exposure
  • Newborn exposed to substances during pregnancy
Instead of saying: Addicted To [name of substance]

Consider saying:

  • Has a [name of substance] use disorder
  • Person who uses [name of substance]
Instead of saying: Addictive Personality

Consider saying:

  • Vulnerable to addiction
Instead of saying: Alcoholic

Consider saying:

  • Person with alcohol use disorder
  • Person with problematic alcohol use
Instead of saying: Clean

Consider saying:

  • For toxicology results: tested negative
  • When referring to an individual: in remission or recovery, abstinent from substances, not drinking or using substances, not currently or actively using substances
Instead of saying: Compliant with...

Consider saying:

  • Consistent with...
  • Working toward...
  • Participating in...
Instead of saying: Crackhead, Meth head

Consider saying:

  • A person with a crack-cocaine use disorder
  • A person with a Methamphetamine use disorder
Instead of saying: Detox

Consider saying:

  • Withdrawl management
Instead of saying: Dirty

Consider saying:

  • For toxicology screen results: tested positive
  • When referring to an individual: currently using [name of substance] or currently drinking or using substances
Instead of saying: Dope Sick

Consider saying:

  • Experiencing acute withdrawal symptoms
Instead of saying: Drug Abuse

Consider saying:

  • Substance use disorder
Instead of saying: Drug of Choice

Consider saying:

  • Use of [name of substance]
Instead of saying: Drug Offender

Consider saying:

  • Person whose substance use has had legal consequences
Instead of saying: Drug Problem or Habit

Consider saying:

  • Substance use or misuse
Instead of saying: Drunk (n.)

Consider saying:

  • Person who engages in unhealthy alcohol use
Instead of saying: Former Addict

Consider saying:

  • Person in recovery or long-term recovery
  • Person no longer using substances
Instead of saying: Gambler or Compulsive Gambler

Consider saying:

  • Person who gambles
  • Person who experiences problems when they gamble
Instead of saying: Intravenous/IV drug user

Consider saying:

  • Person who injects substances
Instead of saying: Junkie

Consider saying:

  • Person with active substance misuse
Instead of saying: Lapse/Relapse/Slip

Consider saying:

  • Experienced a recurrence of misuse
  • Resumed/returned to misuse
Instead of saying: Medication assisted treatment

Consider saying:

  • Medication for Addiction Treatment
  • Medication for Opioid Use Disorder (MOUD)
  • Medication for Alcohol Use Disorder (MAUD)
Instead of saying: Non-compliant, Resistant, Unmotivated, Nonadherent (with respect to someone's participation in services or care)

Consider saying:

  • Not participating or not in agreement with the treatment plan
  • Opted not to
  • Has not begun
  • Feels ambivalent regarding change
Instead of saying: Prescription medication abuse

Consider saying:

  • Non-medical use of a prescription medication
Instead of saying: Problem

Consider saying:

  • Risky, unhealthy or heavy use
  • Potentially harmful use
Instead of saying: Reformed addict

Consider saying:

  • Person who previously used substances
Instead of saying: Sober

Consider saying:

  • In recovery
  • No longer using substances
Instead of saying: Substance or drug abuser

Consider saying:

  • Person who uses substances
Instead of saying: Untreated addict

Consider saying:

  • Person who is using [name of substance] and not currently engaged in SUD treatment. 

Using Person First Language

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