In their own words: language preferences of individuals who use heroin

Addiction. 2019 Oct;114(10):1785-1790. doi: 10.1111/add.14699. Epub 2019 Jul 11.


Background and aims: Use of non-judgmental, respectful and uniform language to describe individuals with substance use disorders (SUD) is recommended to reduce stigma. However, existing research concerning the use of labels for substance use has largely focused on perspectives of treatment providers and the general public, and to a lesser degree of those in long-term recovery. This study aimed to examine and compare labels that individuals who use heroin and are initiating SUD treatment (1) use to describe themselves and when speaking with others who use drugs, with family and with treatment providers, and (2) prefer to be called and never want to be called. Design and Setting This was a cross-sectional survey study using a convenience sample of individuals initiating an in-patient managed withdrawal program in Massachusetts, USA.

Participants: Between October 2017 and May 2018, 263 participants were enrolled.

Measures: Participants completed a survey about (1) what labels they used to refer to self and when talking with others who use drugs, with providers, families and at 12-Step meetings and (2) to identify which label they preferred least and most for others to use when referring to them.

Findings: More than 70% of participants used the term 'addict' to describe themselves and when speaking with others. However, use of 'addict' varied by context, and was most common at 12-Step programs. Fewer than 15% reported using 'user' or slang terms, most commonly 'junkie', in any communications. The most-preferred label for others to call them was 'person who uses drugs', while the most common label that participants never wanted to be called was 'heroin misuser' or 'heroin-dependent'.

Conclusion: Label preferences by individuals who use heroin and are in early recovery are consistent with general guidelines about use of first-person language and suggest avoidance of language indicative of drug misuse or dependence.

Trial registration: NCT01751789.

Keywords: Addiction; heroin use; language; opiates; stigma; substance use disorder; terminology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Heroin Dependence / rehabilitation*
  • Humans
  • Inpatients / psychology*
  • Language*
  • Male
  • Massachusetts
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Preference*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / rehabilitation*
  • Terminology as Topic*
  • Young Adult

Associated data