Why we say substance ‘misuse’ now instead of ‘abuse’
Burlington Free Press
By April Barton
August 16, 2022
Have you heard the phrase “substance misuse” used more recently? You may have realized there’s been a shift in language away from the term “substance abuse.”
Our language is constantly evolving and one of those areas where you can see a recent change in the lexicon is in the use of the phrase substance misuse to describe the action of someone who may be struggling with addiction.
The old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” turns out not to be true. In fact, denigrating labels can prevent a person from seeking help when they need it. That’s one of the reasons person-first language has been adopted in a variety of areas and especially ones where there could be stigma surrounding a person’s situation.
Other areas where you may have seen this change is in mental health or “a person experiencing homelessness” where a person’s current situation needn’t define them as a person.
Jessica Lahey, Vermont author of the book The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence says words matter.
“There’s been a shift in recent years away from language such as ‘substance abuse’ and other labels that places blame (and, all too often, shame) on a person with substance use disorder,” Lahey wrote in an email.
Lahey works at Sana at Stowe, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, and says “misuse” can be a more accurate account of what is occurring, particularly when it comes to youth.
“Substance misuse tends to be a better descriptor for what can happen to kids who start taking prescription medications when they don’t have a prescription themselves or when they take more than the recommended dose,” she said.
In addition to changing the way we characterize the action, a person who is dependent on a substance is more properly referred to as a “person with a substance use disorder.” Lahey says this term is being used to replace ones like “addict” or “alcoholic” in an effort to reduce stigma and shame.
You can find more from Jessica Lahey, including The Addiction Inoculationand her New York Times best-selling book, The Gift of Failure at https://www.jessicalahey.com/.