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When we discuss the crisis of opioid overdoses, the words we use matter

Examples of published headlines about the overdose crisis. Graphic by Kevin Deane/Northeastern University

Opioid and other substance overdoses are officially a public health emergency in the United States. But instead of treating victims of this crisis like medical patients, police, policymakers, and journalists have historically framed people with addictions as criminals, according to two Northeastern researchers.

To move away from these harmful perspectives, journalism fellow Zachary Siegel and Leo Beletsky, an associate professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern who directs the Health in Justice Action Lab, want to change how we talk about addiction. That’s why they recently launched “Changing the Narrative,” a guide for healthcare professionals, journalists, policymakers, and lawyers that Beletsky says will help “nudge them toward more accurate, less stigmatized language.”

Leo Beletsky, associate professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern and director of the Health in Justice Action Lab. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“Research shows that when someone is identified as a drug abuser or an addict, the perception is much more negative,” Siegel says. “People are more likely to think that an addict deserves punishment.”

This perception can be especially dangerous when it comes to incarceration. If someone with an addiction is put in jail without receiving proper medical attention, that person might go into withdrawal.

“Once they’re released, they try to fix the withdrawal, but while they were in jail, their tolerance has dropped, so they end up taking a dose that they think is safe but really isn’t, and often they’ll overdose and die,” Siegel says.  

Siegel says that an appropriate alternative to “addict” or “drug abuser” is “person with a substance-use disorder.” Using less-stigmatizing language like this could help ease negative biases and change how medical professionals treat addiction.

“It can sound like snowflake political correctness, but using person-first language is really humanizing and creates a totally different perception of a person who has a medical illness that is treatable,” Siegel says.

Changing the Narrative was spearheaded by journalist Maia Szalavitz, who has been covering the overdose crisis from a scientific perspective for years. Szalavitz, Siegel, and Beletsky consulted medical professionals, specialists in addiction, journalists, and academic researchers who study public health to provide a comprehensive list of vocabulary and stereotypes that should be avoided.

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Even the commonly-used term “opioid epidemic” is misleading, according to Siegel, because technically, this isn’t an epidemic. “Addiction isn’t infectious. Opioids aren’t a virus,” he says. “When we call it an overdose crisis instead, it defines the problem quite clearly and that the solutions must be overdose prevention.”

In addition to using the right vocabulary, Siegel also urges journalists to choose their sources wisely. “The media will often quote prosecutors as experts on addiction, but they usually don’t have medical backgrounds, and typically their instruments for addressing addiction are limited to arresting and caging people,” he says.

“Obviously you can quote law enforcement about crimes, but when it comes to prescribing public health policy and solutions to this crisis, there’s a whole world of science that should be tapped for these stories,” Siegel says.

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.

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