Words Matter: Where Public Health Professionals Can Do Better

Public health professionals need to be actively engaged in challenging stigmatizing and inaccurate language used to report research on illness and public health work. Examples of outdated, inaccurate and defaming language are found across all fields of public health. Of timely reference are the countless reports on the high prevalence of substance use disorders which describe individuals living with this chronic, medical condition as ‘abusers,’ ‘addicts,’ and ‘users.’ Some articles describe individuals in recovery as ‘clean,’ thus implying that those struggling with sobriety are ‘dirty’ in some regard. These adjectives provide no clear insight into any medical diagnosis, but instead communicate subjectively about moral, personal failure and serve to define individuals solely based on their addiction. Erroneous language has the power to stigmatize vulnerable populations and misinform policy.