“We haven’t hung out with her since she became an alcoholic.”

“He’s been an alcoholic for so long, we’re not sure he’ll ever get sober.”

“Don’t invite that side of the family, they’re mostly alcoholics.”

The word “alcoholic” has long been used to describe people struggling with an alcohol use disorder, but it generally carries a highly negative connotation. Because of that, various medical and psychological experts advise the general public against using this stigmatizing word.

What about the word “alcoholic” is so improper though? We’ll answer that for you.

We’re going to discuss why using the word plays an ongoing role in the perpetuation of the stigma of addiction, and how it can negatively impact those in and out of recovery.

What is the stigma of addiction?

Stigma refers to a negative, unfair or disapproving view that’s generally held by society towards a certain group of individuals. 

The stigma of addiction refers to stigmas against those who are actively struggling with a substance use disorder, previously struggled with a substance use disorder and even those in recovery from a substance use disorder. 

The stigmas around addiction stem from all sorts of misconceptions, including beliefs such as: 

  • Addiction is a sign of a weak character
  • Addiction is a curse because of one’s sins
  • Addiction happened because of a lack of willpower
  • Addiction is “inherited” through family members

Though the development of addiction can be influenced by genetics, it’s not solely rooted in one’s genes. Just because your parent or sibling or uncle struggled with an addiction, doesn’t automatically mean you will too.

These stigmas come from many different places, including cultural and religious norms, family habits, generational belief systems and expectations.

One of the reasons these stigmas are still around is because of the continuous use of negative terms like “addict” and “alcoholic.”

Why language matters

The negative effects of stigmatizing those struggling with addiction are vast. Stigmas can affect people in different ways, depending on factors such as the state of their mental health, the severity of their addiction, their daily environments and more.

The most common effects include:

  • Reduced access to treatment (whether self-caused or due to discrimination)
  • Frequent or consistent social isolation
  • Increased feelings of shame, guilt, fear and loneliness
  • Lack of empathy towards oneself and others
  • Negative impact on relationships, work, family
  • Negative view of oneself, others and the world

Referring to someone as an ‘alcoholic’ roots their identity in the addiction. That person is no longer remembered as a father/mother, brother/sister, husband/wife or a strong worker — they’re an alcoholic. The more people only see him and speak about him that way, the more they’ll view themselves through that lens. 

Many people experiencing this, choose not to seek treatment because they either believe it won’t work for them. Even if it does, they’ll still be viewed as an alcoholic because of the other harmful stigma of “once an addict, always an addict.”

This doesn’t have to remain our reality, though. People are so much more than their conditions, addictions and other challenges, and most of us know that to be true; but we all have a role to play in reducing the stigma of addiction.

How to make a difference

The first step to begin making a difference when it comes to ending the stigma of addiction is to become aware of how you might be contributing, consciously or unconsciously.

While “alcoholic” might not be a word we use every day, it might be a word we always use in a circumstance to define someone struggling with an alcohol use disorder. Recognizing if we have this habit is the first step, eliminating it from our vocabulary is the second.

While encouraging others to do the same can be beneficial, leading by example is oftentimes far more influential than telling someone what they should be doing, even if that thing is good.

Get started today

Real Recovery is a premier addiction rehabilitation center that specializes in providing evidence-based clinical services to adults.

If you or someone you love is struggling with a substance use disorder, mental health condition or both, send us a message today. Knowing where to begin can feel overwhelming, but that’s why we’re here to help; you’re not alone in this, and you will have a successful recovery. 

Give us a call today to speak with one of our compassionate advisors and learn more about how to take your first steps toward sobriety.