The language we use to describe ourselves and others matters.
In an effort to replace harmful words and change attitudes, the Massachusetts House of Representatives gave initial approval to change the title of the state’s legislative joint standing committee on behavioral health Feb. 2nd. If adopted, the committee would be entitled the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery. The proposal reflects an effort to eliminate terminology that promotes stigma and defines individuals by their substance use disorder. The shift emphasizes the real possibility of recovery.
According to medical science, substance use disorder is a relapsing-remitting disease that, with treatment, can be managed so that people can live full, productive lives. Unlike other chronic illnesses, however, there is a powerful stigma around substance use that prevents people from getting help, trapping them in the cycle of addiction. Words have incredible power in perpetuating or combatting stigma. Unfortunately, “substance abuse” carries associations of wrongdoing or violence.
In recognition of this stigma, and in response to developments in the study of addiction, the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—the leading diagnostic manual for behavioral health conditions in the United States—renamed “substance abuse” to “substance use disorder.” Medical professionals and government officials are now beginning to use this medically appropriate terminology.
Massachusetts is a national leader in the fight against substance use. When the committee was established, Massachusetts was one of the first states to devote a joint standing committee’s time and efforts to behavioral health issues. As we continue to combat the opioid epidemic that is ravaging our communities, we must continue this proud legacy. That effort must first begin with the language we use.