October 14, 2020
Words and Imagery Matter: The Struggle to Destigmatize Addiction

Dirty needles. Burned spoons. Rolled-up dollar bills. Even in the absence of imagery, these words invoke a strong response and can reinforce negative stereotypes of those living with addiction. And worse, they can be relapse triggers for those who have worked hard to overcome their addiction.

According to a recent study, feeling stigmatized can reduce the willingness of young adults with a substance use disorder to seek treatment.

That’s why it is critical that the language used when discussing addiction is person-first and positive, and imagery emphasizes prevention, health and treatment methods over the drug use itself. Illicit drug use in the news and entertainment often contains sensational stories and pictures that stoke fear and intensify the perceived dangers of individuals with substance use disorders. Unfortunately, these portrayals further stigmatize substance use and can even induce cravings, and for some, a relapse.

But why? Imagery is a powerful tool that strengthens human motivation. It’s often used in consumer marketing techniques – think ice cold drinks or mouthwatering sandwiches. Because imagery conveys the emotional qualities of a desired outcome, mimicking the anticipated reward ensures that the target stays on top of mind. When images of drugs or drug use flash across the screen, it can have the same effect for those living with addiction.

Additionally, this imagery, as well as the use of alarming language like “junkie” or “addict,” can reinforce the negative social attitudes that people have about addiction, thereby rejecting the person because they are “dangerous or a bad influence.” Such words and images are dehumanizing and reduce the experience of those who are living with addiction to a single word or image.

In order to combat stigma, it is important to include personal accounts to help people better understand the fears and struggles of those living with addiction. A more humane context helps to raise awareness of the realities of addiction without revictimizing someone.

As a society, we have a responsibility to correct stereotypes and misperceptions that negatively impact how we view those with addictive behaviors and how their addiction is addressed. There are few conditions that are more stigmatized than addiction, and it will take intention to change the perception of drug addiction as a moral failure and choice to one that is biological and neurochemical in nature.

If you want to help eliminate stigma, here are three simple steps you can take:

  1. Use person-first language that is nonjudgmental and identifies that the person “has” a problem, instead of “is” the problem.
  2. Be thoughtful about the images you share on social media. Ask yourself, does this image sensationalize drug use? Could my image be a relapse trigger for someone I know?
  3. Educate others about the unintended, yet harmful, impacts of stigmatizing language and imagery.
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