By Alanna Hilbink
We’ve all heard people say it — and we’ve probably said it ourselves: “I’m so addicted to Game of Thrones.” “I’m OCD about making my bed.” “I was crying this morning and now I’m laughing. I’m so bipolar today.” Mental health terms and labels get tossed into everyday conversation all the time. So if everyone does it, what’s the big deal? Why is language like this problematic? And how can you change the conversation?
What You Say Matters
Our words matter. Labels matter. And misunderstandings and stigmas definitely matter. When we don’t acknowledge mental health issues as the serious but treatable conditions they are, we hold everyone back. We hold back friends and family who may be struggling. We hold back progress in medical studies and science. We prevent communities from offering appropriate resources and support. And we don’t let ourselves be our kindest, most understanding selves. The language we choose impacts how we understand addiction — and what we do about it.
Addiction isn’t a matter of liking or loving anything. In fact, a lot of people struggling with addiction have probably come to despise the substances they use and yet can’t stop. When you say, “I’m so addicted to ___,” you’re implying a person uses drugs because he or she “likes” them. That addiction is a matter of fondness, not of mental health. It implies a connection between personal choice and addiction.
The Journal of Bioethical Inquiry explains, “‘Addicted’ persons interpret themselves as both failing in effective agency and not living up to their own normative standards, and their recognition of this leads to a set of negative self-regarding attitudes, central to these being shame.”1 When addiction is made light of through words and conversation, people with real addiction struggles may be convinced they should be able to stop on their own. That they are lacking some level of control or willpower other people have plenty of, that their thoughts and actions aren’t “normal” and are therefore wrong.
There’s nothing shameful or “abnormal” about addiction, but the continued belief that there is keeps people from speaking up or getting help. When we don’t use the right words to talk about addiction and mental health, we keep this belief alive.
The Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment shares that when it comes to drinkers getting help, “belief in solving one’s own problem was identified as the most frequent barrier, whereas the opposite (‘could not solve problem on my own’) was the most frequently identified incentive.”2 And Psychology Today explains, “shame is the largest barrier to alcoholics getting treatment. Ironically, asking for help and seeking treatment should be something recovering alcoholics are proud of.”3
When we portray addiction as a joke, we further support the idea that addiction isn’t real, doesn’t need to be treated or is something people “should” be able to handle on their own. We create feelings of stigma and shame for those who can’t “just stop.” None of this is malicious of course, but this doesn’t change the fact that our attitudes toward and language regarding addiction creates an unhealthy, confusing maze for people who are already facing enough challenges regarding their health and wellbeing.
Taking Addiction Seriously
Addiction and mental health issues can be invisible diseases, so even if you’re around close friends and family members, think before you speak. Think about what your words are really saying or implying. You love potato chips, but you could stop eating them. Your life isn’t being harmed or limited by your relationship with potato chips (or other food item, drug or behavior). Don’t imply that the same is, or should be, true for everyone.
Similarly, think before you label someone. Your friend with addiction isn’t “an addict.” He or she isn’t the disease of addiction (or any other mental or physical health concern). He or she is a person first. If your friend or family member is addicted, take his or her experiences seriously. Think before you speak or act. Think about what your words might really be saying or implying, even if that isn’t what you actually mean. Consider if what you’re saying is stigmatizing real mental health issues and the people who work hard to live with them every day.
Making light of addiction can also keep you from getting the help you need. Do you joke about how much you drink or smoke? Maybe these jokes aren’t so light-hearted after all. Rather than use sarcasm or hyperbole when you talk about your drug use or problematic thought patterns, have a serious conversation with both yourself and others. Look at how and why you do the things you do. Is your drinking impacting your health? Is your mental health keeping you from doing or enjoying the things you actually do love? Don’t hide behind minimization or denial.
You Can Change the Conversation About Addiction and Mental Health
Even the smallest changes in how you talk about and approach addiction and mental health can make a real difference. Your words can let someone feel freer or more comfortable to talk about his or her recovery needs. When we aren’t afraid of being judged, stigmatized or excluded, we can speak up. We can get the support, understanding and treatment we all deserve. So let’s start a real conversation. Let’s think before we speak. And let’s make sure we stand together when it comes to treating people with substance use and mental health disorders like the wonderful, strong people they are!
1 Matthews, Steve, et al. “Stigma and Self-Stigma in Addiction.” Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, May 3, 2017.
2 Rapp, Richard, et al. “Treatment Barriers Identified by Substance Abusers Assessed at a Centralized Intake Unit.” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, September 20, 2007.
3 Benton, Sarah. “Shame as a Barrier to Addiction Treatment.” Psychology Today, November 17, 2017.