Changing the way we talk about people who use drugs or alcohol can benefit them and society as a whole.

Talking to our Chief Executive Tim Young the other day the subject of the impact of language and the use of specific words on peoples opinion came up. We asked him how important he thought it was for the field and this was his response.

Individuals brave enough to share their experiences are helping to spread the word that there is life after drugs and alcohol with contagious positivity!

Our team at The Alcohol and Drug Service (ADS) supports people in recovery to access treatment, improve health and engage in positive change. However, common discourse about the use of drugs and alcohol refers to ‘addicts’ and their ‘addiction’. This labeling removes the ‘person’ from the discussion so, the conversation isn’t about “a person with a drug problem” it’s about ‘an addict’ – almost as if the issue becomes about a ‘thing’ not a person.

The dehumanising effect this has can, not only create barriers to people accessing support but when the time comes to (re)integrate into the community can impede the community accepting people. This is so embedded in our society that we often hear people in recovery themselves using words and phrases like “getting clean”. The implication being that someone is ‘dirty’ when they have not achieved abstinence and this further perpetuates the stereotype.

Such stigma can make it difficult for people to recognise and admit they may need some help. If they associate support services like ours as being for those who are ‘dirty’ or not quite human does that mean they have to identify as ‘dirty’ in order to think they need our support? Even if people then identify with this stereotype, does doing so mean they believe they are somehow less than other people and so are less deserving of basic human rights or compassion?  Imagine how much more difficult this makes it for those who need support to reach out for that help.

As a charity working with people in recovery, we see the impact of this all the time. It is our responsibility to humanise people coming into our service, approaching their individual needs with compassion and empowering them to tell their story.

Unfortunately, labels are widely used across health and social care. The most well-known and widely used is the word ‘patient’. It’s spelling is the same as “to wait patiently”, describing a relationship where people wait for a doctor/nurse/therapist to come along and make them better. This presents people as being passive in their recovery. In other words something is done ‘to’ them. We believe that recovery is done ‘by’ people themselves and to support this we must help them believe they can affect change and are worthy of a better and more fulfilling life. To do this we treat people with drug or alcohol problems as human beings first and foremost and offer the tools, opportunity and support for them to realise their potential.

Alcohol and drug problems can and do affect anyone, regardless of background and life experiences. Taking the first step can feel like a mountain too big to climb; how can I ever stop drinking? I will never be able to stop taking heroin or painkillers?

Therefore, developing personal assets and positive attributes gives greater confidence to find a way to a more fulfilling life. One of the ways we do this is through what’s called ‘visible recovery’. Our good news stories provide living proof that there is a way, as do high profile events such as the Recovery Games. Research tells us that 79% of people in long term recovery volunteer in their communities supporting community wellbeing. This is twice as many as for people who have not had a drug or alcohol problem.

Quoting FAVOR UK; “The talent of those in recovery has been left untapped for too long. People in recovery can be highly motivated, loyal and committed workers.”

We believe there is evidence that people in recovery make a real and positive difference to the wider community. It would be tragic if by refusing to acknowledge and accept people in recovery, communities missed a golden opportunity to improve the life and circumstances of everyone.

If you or anyone you know are affected by drugs and alcohol, please visit our website

Published 25th March 2019

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