In any given year, one in five Canadians experiences a mental illness or addiction problem. Yet, the stigma for these people, their friends, and family still loom over their everyday lives.
In a 2008 survey, only 50 percent of Canadians would tell their friends or co-workers they have a family member with a mental illness compared to 72 percent of people who would discuss a diagnosis of cancer.
About six million people meet the criteria of having an addiction, according to Statistics Canada. But the language we still hear can be as damaging. Of those, alcohol is by far the most common drug used, with about 77,000 hospitalizations in 2016.
So, how do you speak to someone with a substance disorder?
Use neutral, medically accurate terms
It’s no secret that many common addiction terms are literally and figuratively ingrained in our society. Generally, this is the case across our healthcare systems, social and political life.
By ensuring you use proper terminology, you are helping end the stigma against people living with addictions and mental health disorders.
Instead of saying “addict” say “people who use drugs/people with a substance use disorder.”
Studies have shown that people who see someone as an “addict” tend to take a negative view of others, even healthcare patients. However, when people saw someone with a disorder, you see someone in need of help.
Use people-first language that focuses on people first not their actions
It’s key to use language that addresses someone who has a disorder—not that they are a problem, or their actions are unacceptable.
When people use drugs, they are less likely to seek help. Studies also have shown that the quality of care they receive is significantly impacted in a negative way.
By putting the person first in how you describe them, you are expressing care, concern, and addressing their issues rather than blaming them.
For example, if you tend to refer to someone as being “clean,” you can say “people in recovery/people lived/living experience.”
This acknowledges that the person worked hard to overcome their issues and continues every day to work on themselves. Recovery is a huge accomplishment and a never-ending journey.
Yes, it can be difficult to change what you say, but remember that it is even more challenging to accept, understand, and overcome mental health disorders and addictions affecting people. By choosing our words carefully, we can all do a small part in ending the stigma.