The word “addiction” has been used for millennia in various forms. It was generally used to mean strong attachment or single-minded devotion and historically has had both positive and negative connotations. Recreational drug use was not stigmatized until the early 1800s, the same period that saw the temperance movement depicting alcohol use as a moral failing. With rare exceptions, drugs weren’t outlawed in much of the Western world until the 20th century.
Currently there is no single official definition of addiction. Unlike substance use disorder (SUD), it is not a clinical diagnosis. Some organizations call it a complex psychological disorder; others refer to it as a chronic medical disease. In general, someone with an addiction engages in a behavior despite negative consequences and has difficulty stopping. The term typically refers to substance use, but individuals can also be diagnosed with other addictions such as gambling.
Addiction can be a useful alternative to SUD in some cases. Diagnosing someone with a specific addiction requires specialized knowledge and is generally outside a journalist’s scope; even medical professionals are held to strong ethical guidelines when it comes to determining or disclosing this kind of diagnosis when talking to the media.
When describing a person who has an addiction, person-first language reinforces that addiction is one aspect of someone’s life and doesn’t define them. Assigning terms like “addict” or “junkie” to someone can shame them into hiding their issues instead of seeking help. If they self-identify with these terms and it’s pertinent to your coverage, quoting their words can give a window into their lived experience, but it could also be read as reinforcing stigma. When in doubt, ask your source. “Patient” is used in clinical contexts. In addition, casual use of addiction language in a metaphorical sense (e.g. “She’s addicted to the latest season of X show”) can minimize the gravity of clinical addiction.
Framing addiction as solely a biological phenomenon can diminish an individual’s agency and imply that recovery is hopeless. At the same time, framing addiction as a “habit” implies that addressing it is a matter of willpower or moral character, which is not the case. Physiological, emotional, genetic, interpersonal, and societal factors can all contribute to addiction. In coverage of addiction-related issues, it may be helpful to include a helpline number such as the one for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (1-800-662-HELP).
- The Science of Drug Use and Addiction: The Basics (National Institute on Drug Abuse)
- Definition of Addiction (American Society of Addiction Medicine)
Addiction is a strong, persistent need to engage in a certain behavior. The term is often used to describe substance use, but other behaviors like gambling may also be considered addictive. When describing someone who has an addiction, person-first language sends a message that addiction is one aspect of someone’s life and doesn’t define them. Casual use of addiction language in a metaphorical sense (e.g. “She’s addicted to the latest season of X show”) can minimize the gravity of clinical addiction. In coverage of addiction-related issues, it may be helpful to include a helpline number such as the one for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (1-800-662-HELP).