MORE THAN WORDS | Behavioral Healthcare Executive Skip to content Skip to navigation


April 1, 2007
by Douglas J. Edwards, Editor-in-Chief
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One of the first lessons new healthcare editors receive is how to describe people with disabilities, diseases, medical conditions, etc. “People with mental illness” is preferred over “the mentally ill,” “a person with schizophrenia” should not be described as “a schizophrenic,” and so on. It can get a little tricky at times, but the focus is to emphasize the individual, not the disease or condition. Authors who submit articles on mental health topics usually defer to this format.

But authors of articles on substance abuse topics routinely refer to people dependent on substances as “addicts.” It's admittedly a convenient shorthand for a wordy alternative. In my view, however, calling a person with the disease of addiction an “addict” is the same as calling someone with a mental disability “retarded.” Both terms ignore the person behind the diagnosis and emphasize what's “wrong” or “abnormal.”

Using alternatives to “addict” is more than a semantic exercise—it's a way to continue our goal of changing how society views people with the disease of addiction and perceptions of treatment for their problems. Perhaps when more people come to see “addicts” as people who have real medical problems support for treatment—and access to it—will grow. If we want to live in a society where substance use problems are recognized as legitimate medical problems that can be treated, I don't think that “addict” can be part of the lexicon used to describe patients/clients (the linguistic implications of those words themselves having been debated for years). If the addiction treatment field doesn't reconsider its use of “addict,” then neither will the rest of society.

Nonetheless, “addict” is a widely used term in the behavioral health field, and you will continue to see it in Behavioral Healthcare. After all, it's not up to me to decide how the field describes its patients/clients. It's up to you. So the next time you consider calling someone an addict, I ask that you at least consider describing him/her in a way that focuses on the person. It might have a bigger impact than you think.

Douglas J. Edwards, Editor-in-Chief