Language Matters: Focused on Addiction

Nzinga Harrison, MD
November 5, 2020

Many years ago, those struggling with addiction hid in the shadows, hiding their addiction from the world. Sometimes ashamed, sometimes to avoid ridicule, and sometimes, to just avoid. Nowadays, there are many organizations focused on caring for individuals struggling with substance use disorder and the mental and emotional issues that arise because of this behavior. “Mental health and substance use disorders affect people from all walks of life and all age groups” (SAMHSA, 2020). But even with new organizations popping up every day to combat addiction, there is still a stigma that remains prevalent in society.

Dr. Nzinga Harrison, with Eleanor Health, has dedicated her life to helping those with addiction live amazing lives. She states that “eliminating the stigma is one of the most important steps in supporting people with addiction” (Harrison, 2020). Small changes can make a remarkable impact on a person struggling with substance use disorder. The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that by changing the vocabulary used when interacting with those struggling with addiction, the individuals comfort level increases and the placement of blame decreases. Some examples of these changes include:

  • Replacing the term “addict” with “individual with substance use disorder”
  • Replacing the term “abuse” with “use” or “misuse”
  • Replacing the term “habit” with “drug addiction” or “substance use disorder”

By changing the message sent when we interact with those struggling with addiction, we can work to remove any stigma and replace it with love and support. We need to work to help these individuals live amazing lives. Not cut their lives short, as so many do every year. Drug related deaths have been increasing at a staggering rate over the last 20 years. “Today, one in four deaths are attributable to alcohol, tobacco, and illicit or prescription drug use” (NIDA, 2020).
Let’s come together in unity and work to start saving lives today.

1. Substance Abuse Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA). (2020, April 30). Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders.
2. Harrison, N. (2020, July 20). How to Reduce the Guilt, Shame, and Stigma of Addiction — Eleanor Health: Recovery. For Life.
3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, September 02). Words Matter — Terms to Use and Avoid When Talking About Addiction.
4. NIDA. 2020, June 15. Death.

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Nzinga Harrison, MD

Dr. Harrison serves as the Chief Medical Officer for Eleanor Health with more than 15 years experience practicing medicine. She is a double-board certified physician with specialties in general adult psychiatry and addiction medicine. Dr. Harrison has spent her career as a physician treating individuals from marginalized communities with substance use and other psychiatric disorders. As a physician executive, she has served as Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer roles committed to creating and improving systems-based delivery of psychiatric and substance abuse care. She is a vocal advocate for stigma reduction, and is passionate about the necessity for whole-person care as individuals and communities seek to recover from and prevent substance use disorders.

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