Kimberley Shore, Psy.D. Student, Clinical Psychology | Albizu University – Miami


n 2019, the seventh edition of the American Psychological Association publication manual explicitly stated to avoid negative and condescending terminology when labeling individuals. Publications are not to include words like “alcoholic” or “meth addict,” and they suggest using other neutral terminology, like “person with substance use disorder” when labeling patients. Person-first language is necessary for all mental health professionals.

Harmful terms used by healthcare professionals, such as “junkie,” can also serve as barriers to treatment and cause danger to an individual’s self-identity (Radcliffe and Stevens, 2008). Language is powerful, and it is time we check in and see that we are utilizing the correct language in our writing and our patient interaction. The following guide illustrates some do’s and don’ts to align words with ethical values. Let us be helpful, not harmful!

Instead of these words:Let’s use these!
Drug abuseSubstance use
Drug abuserIndividual with substance use disorder
Addict, alcoholic, user, junkie, reformedPerson-first language: a person with a substance use disorder or a person in recovery
Clean, dirtyPositive, negative, abstinent
RelapsedRecurrence, resuming use
Medication-assisted treatmentMedications for addiction treatment

It is ok if you have used the words on the left. Now that you are aware, you can make the appropriate changes to your communications! This is a brief list. If you would like more information or to dive into the reasoning and research behind the switch, please go to:

One final note: mutual self-help groups may use certain words as a part of their internal culture.  This language is context-specific. The list above shows the appropriate terms for healthcare professionals in patient care settings and writings (and of course, the classroom).


Radcliffe, P., & Stevens, A. (2008). Are drug treatment services only for ‘thieving junkie scumbags’? Drug users and the management of stigmatized identities. Social Science & Medicine, 67(7), 1065–1073.


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