Redemptive Language

In capital case mitigations, carefully determined language choices are emphasized because words can be the only thing to remind a jury that your client is human, has remorse, and can change for the better despite committing a horrific crime. Word choices can help mitigate the effect of the harm caused to the victims while reminding the judge and jurors that the client was and is more than the criminal offense before them. For example, choosing the word “child” to describe a juvenile defendant is an intentional word choice used to shift the focus to the fragile and immature development of a young criminal defendant. Likewise, describing your adult client as a beloved son and caring father places the client in the community as loved by and belonging to others, not isolated or rejected.

This same intentionality of language is beginning to extend to persons struggling with a substance use disorder. The current Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Jerome Adams, in his report Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Spotlight on Opioids, highlights the stigma associated with having a substance use disorder. He first notes that substance use disorders are “a chronic but treatable brain disease, and not a moral failing or character flaw.” Researchers, scientists, physicians, and now the federal government have accepted that substance use is driven by a brain disease that is treatable – not a conscious choice driven by weakness or bad behavior.

To emphasize this, the Surgeon General talks about the difficulties faced by persons with a substance use disorder who are interested in seeking treatment. It is not surprising that by labeling someone with a substance use disorder as morally corrupt, access to treatment is the barrier and stigma is the consequence. In his report, the Surgeon General cites research finding that for persons with an opioid use disorder, only one in four receive needed treatment. Of all persons with a substance use disorder, only 12.2% receive any kind of needed substance use treatment. Availability of treatment beds is not the only impediment to these small treatment numbers. Stigma based on language and labeling also prevents people from seeking (or being referred to) needed treatment.[i]

This is why our nomenclature around substance use is changing. Just like in capital case mitigations, if we rely on language that only sees the defendant as their worst action at the worst moment in their life, then there is no humanity and no mercy. If we only talk about ‘addicts’ and ‘alcoholics’ and point out a perceived propensity to “relapse again” then what hope or opportunity for change do these individuals have?

The currently accepted nomenclature utilizes “person with a substance use disorder” instead of addict (or “person with an alcohol use disorder” instead of alcoholic, or “person with a methamphetamine use disorder” instead of meth addict, etc.); “substance use disorder” takes the place of substance abuse or drug abuse; and “person in [short-term or long-term] recovery” takes the place of former addict. This language and terminology is intended to put a stop to the negative stigma for persons with substance use disorders so they may seek recovery unencumbered by judgment. Using intentional language also offers hope that recovery is possible and the individual with a substance use disorder can get better with treatment.

For the 70% to nearly 90% of people with a substance use disorder who need treatment but are unable to access it, adopting a destigmatizing language of hope and healing can make the difference in whether they seek appropriate treatment services. The next time you meet with a client with a substance use disorder, remember you are engaging someone with a brain disease who can recover and successfully be restored to society. Then, when you go before a judge to discuss the humanity, remorse, and reform potential of that client, rely on redemptive language to describe someone with a substance use disorder who can get better.

Persons with substance use disorders can and do recover. They go on to live in long-term recovery, make positive life changes, work in our communities, and are of service to others. To set this process into motion we simply need to be mindful of the shared language that exists to destigmatize negative connotations and remind us, the court, prosecutors, and jurors that a less punitive and more health-focused approach to recovery is possible.

[i] Recovery coaches are one viable and effective solution to help reduce stigma and link persons with substance use disorders to treatment, but that is another topic that can further be explored here and here.

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