“User” is a term in the addiction recovery community for someone who abuses narcotics but isn’t necessarily addicted. This terminology, important for understanding addiction, originated in the 1960s counterculture, initially referring to individuals using drugs like LSD or marijuana. It has since broadened to include a range of substances such as alcohol, prescription medications and illicit drugs. Being labeled as a “user” signifies regular substance consumption or abuse and acknowledging this status can be a important first step towards recovery. However, it’s essential to remember that this term doesn’t define a person’s entire identity; it merely reflects their substance use behaviour and the related challenges. The addiction recovery community advocates for recognising the individual beyond their substance use, encouraging compassionate and non-judgmental treatment approaches.

Addiction is a disease and it’s important to use language that frames it as a health issue, showing respect to those affected and their families, similar to how we address diseases like cancer or heart disease.

A person should not be defined by their illness. For example, we say “someone with cancer” instead of “cancerous.” This applies to addiction as well. Instead of “user” or “addict” we should say “person with a substance use disorder.

Our choice of words can either perpetuate stigma around substance use or promote understanding and compassion. By rethinking our language, we enable individuals with addiction to seek treatment more easily, influence lawmakers to fund appropriate programs, aid doctors in providing better care and help insurers to cover evidence-based treatments. Recognising the medical nature of addiction is crucial.

Here are some suggestions for changing the language of addiction:

  • Instead of “abuse/abuser” (e.g., “He’s a drug abuser”), use terms like “risky use,” “harmful use,” or “person with substance use disorder.” The word “abuse” can imply blame or lack of control, not framing it as a health issue.
  • Replace “addict” or related terms with “person with a substance use disorder” or “person struggling with addiction.” The term “addict” reduces a person’s identity to their struggle and denies their humanity.
  • Avoid “user” (e.g., “He’s a drug user”) and instead say “person who uses substances.” Like “addict,” the term “user” labels a person by behavior.
  • Replace “clean/sober” (e.g., “now she’s clean”) with “in recovery” or “not currently using substances.” The terms “clean/sober” suggest that addiction is associated with being “dirty.”
  • Instead of “habit” (e.g., “She has a bad drug habit”), use “substance use disorder” or “person with substance use disorder.” “Habit” implies that the issue is easily controllable, ignoring the medical complexity of addiction.
  • For “replacement/substitution therapy” (e.g., “replacement therapy for opioid addiction”), use “medication-assisted treatment” or “medication for addiction treatment.” The term “replacement” undermines the validity of these treatments and implies continued active drug use.

Remember, “Words have to change so attitudes change.” Let’s use language that supports recovery and understanding.

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    Founded in 2008, WeDoRecover has evolved from an advisory service for addiction treatment into a comprehensive provider of care, following its 2019 merger with Changes Addiction Rehab in Johannesburg. Specialising in connecting patients to top-tier addiction treatment centers in the UK, South Africa and Thailand, WeDoRecover supports individuals globally, including those from the United Arab Emirates and Europe. Accepting both South African medical aid and international health insurance our organisation facilitates access to high-quality treatment for substance and alcohol use disorders, offering individualised care that addresses the physical, mental and social needs of patients.

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