The power of language


Reproduced with kind permission. This article originally appeared in the NADA Advocate eMagazine, published in March 2022. Readers can subscribe to the Advocate here

The language we use to talk about AOD and the people who use them is powerful. Stigmatising language reinforces negative stereotypes - 'person centred' language focuses on the person, not their substance use. Language may be used as a practice tool that can empower and fight stigma—but language is also complex.

What is considered 'person centred' will depend on the individual and the context. Some people may relate with the term 'recovery', and others may identify as an 'addict', while many people will not.  

Kevin (Consumer representative, NADA Consumer Advisory Group), Lauren (NADA Practice Leader and Clinical Director, Triple Care Farm) and Carolyn (NADA Practice Leader and Nursing Manager, WHOS), provide some advice and insights

Carolyn: Language can pigeon-hole a person such as 'junkie' or 'addict'; the alternative being ' a person who uses drugs' is less stigmatising in the wider community. Self-help groups are very strong supports for those individuals seeking abstinence and words such as 'addict' and 'being clean' can be frowned upon by others, but within the confines of NA or AA meetings, these terms work for many.

It is the wider community that needs to change how they view people who use drugs, so outside the confines of self-help meetings, it is worth a conversation to illustrate that different language can be used. When advocating for changes to the stigma and discrimination of people who use drugs, it is so important for the community to see them as individuals who have their own story and not to attach a label.

Lauren: My understanding of language and someone else's understanding isn't always the same. Depending on your rapport with the person, and your scope of practice, it can be helpful to clarify the meaning behind the words. Sometimes people use language that can be a form of internalised 'loathing' from societal expectations, and they may not even realise that it is happening or the impacts it's having on them. Other times, people may have reclaimed a word or have a different meaning for it, and it can make them feel more empowered.

How do I know what to say—I'm nervous I'll say the wrong thing? 

Lauren: The term political correctness is in itself an interesting term to describe changes in language. I have often seen it used as a reductionist way to minimise someone's experiences, or feelings, or thoughts as invalid (i.e., 'they are just too sensitive'). If we go back to the definition, it is about not acting in a way that is exclusionary and marginalising in a way that can further malign someone. If I am correct in my assumption, none of us actually want to set out to do that to someone, so it makes sense to pay attention to our language in order to achieve this.

The reality is that you probably will say the wrong thing at some point in your career. You're human, and it's completely normal, and we don't always get it right. I certainly bring past language into conversations that I now logically know I need to 'do better'on, but it can be subconscious… entrenched. If it is done from a place of non-understanding (and not malice), it's about how we engage in 'repair'after the inadvertent discretion. Acknowledge it, say sorry, and ask how you can maybe do better in the future. Model healthy forms of communication, rather than get angry or dismiss it as being their fault or 'people being too PC these days'.

Carolyn: Every person we work with in the AOD sector has their own story, their own trauma, success and failure stories. It is so essential that each individual is respected in their journey. Talking with a client about language is not about telling them it is wrong to use language such as 'addict' in a self-help group setting, as that is specific to those meetings, but these words don't need to be used in the wider community. The conversation needs to be centred around public perception of people who use drugs, and that we can help educate the community by using different language. The focus of language is really to empower a person to not pigeon-hole themselves, to embrace their individuality and feel respected by others. No matter where someone is in their journey of drug use, respectful language will assist them in feeling worthwhile and help to slowly change community perceptions.

​Kevin says: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me. I remember that saying from my childhood, it was a mantra I often repeated when I was confronted by other kids calling me names. Although I never really believed it—as the name-calling did hurt, but I tried to tough it out.

Language does matter, especially when others attach a label to another human being. I used heroin for over three decades, and if I had just one dollar for every time I heard phrases like 'junkie scum' I could retire comfortably. I heard it so many times, I ended up referring to myself as a 'junkie'.

Today I am no longer prepared to accept labels like this, because in all honesty, they are designed to separate and denigrate. Language matters because the way we describe people, especially a marginalised community such as people who use drugs, provides an open door to prejudice. Let's do our best to stop using stigmatising language that has been so normalised, that people don't question it.

Carolyn, Lauren and Kevin have provided some valuable insights and advice about language that we can all consider when talking about AOD and the people that use them, to empower and fight stigma and discrimination.

Some key tips include:

  • Language does matter because when not used properly it can stigmatise, separate and denigrate people.

  • Using respectful language is key to assisting people feel worthwhile and changing community views.

  • When advocating for changes to the stigma and discrimination of people who use drugs, it is vital for the community to see them as individuals who have their own story and not to attach a label.

For more useful information and resources, refer to:

Language matters
Developed by NADA and NUAA for AOD workers to provide best-practice guidelines on how to use language to empower clients and reinforce a person centred approach.
Power of words
Alcohol and Drug Foundation Designed to support healthcare and other professionals working with people who use AOD to reduce stigma and improve health outcomes.
Communicating about alcohol and other drugs
MINDFRAME's strategy to support the media and other stakeholders to communicate safely, respectfully and responsibly about AOD. 

If you have any questions about this topic, please contact the author of this article Michelle Ridley at

For free and confidential advice 24/7 call the Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS) on 1800 250 015. Counsellors are available to provide information, referrals, crisis counselling and support. Or start a Web Chat with an ADIS counsellor online Monday to Friday, 8.30am – 5pm. ADIS can also provide up-to-date information about service availability in your area during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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