“The pen is mightier than the sword.” Perhaps tweets pull more weight than swords these days, but the power of words has been unmistakable for thousands of years: from spiritual texts such as the Qur’an and The Bible to Shakespeare to James Baldwin to Margret Atwood. But can words cause harm? We all remember, and maybe even teach our kids that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Wrong. According to a recent study, in The American Journal of Medicine, it turns out that language matters.
This study found that experience with terms such as “abuser” creates an unspoken prejudice that results in harsher judgment and increase of shame. Read this key passage from the study to gain an understanding of the way language can be so powerful:
“Words can and do hurt, and in ways that we are not aware and cannot always anticipate…We recommend referring to individuals with addiction as people with a “substance use disorder,” not as substance “abusers” or “addicts.” For those with consequences or risk, but who do not have a disorder…we recommend the terms “hazardous,” “risky,” or “harmful” use, or for the full spectrum that includes risk to a disorder, “unhealthy” use.”
Words hurt even worse if you are struggling with addiction. For those old enough to remember the War on Drugs waged by United States President Richard Nixon and later enhanced by President and Nancy Regan with their “Just Say No” campaign, you may ask: who fought this war? The U.S. loss and continues to lose that sort of “War on Drugs” badly.
The war on drugs included an effort by the United States government to vilify and shame people who sold and used drugs. The negative impact of words used as weapons to demonize humans with substance abuse disorders. Unfortunately, it worked. As suggested by the recent study, this kind of “language increases stigma and reduces help-seeking.” As the report in The American Journal of Medicine found, words pack powerful punches and build a wall between those in need of help and those who may provide the help:
“Because substance-related conditions are the number one public health concern in the United States and stigma is a major barrier to accessing treatment, reducing stigma is vital for enhancing public health.”
In conclusion, our words matter, and the words we choose can hurt or help, especially as we care for each other along the journey of life. Being aware of the way we speak to each other can make a big difference between someone seeking help or deciding not to take that first step. Encouraging words may seem like childish things, but it’s as a child we learn that sticks, stones and words do hurt. This study suggests that we “remove the terms “abuse” and “abuser,” “dirty” and “clean” from our vocabulary and commit to a medically appropriate lexicon that conveys the same dignity and respect we offer to other patients. We should stop talking dirty.”
Kelly, J. F., Wakeman, S. E., & Saitz, R. (2015). Stop talking ‘dirty’: clinicians, language, and quality of care for the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. The American journal of medicine, 128(1), 8-9.