Why we developed the language guide  

Stigma and discrimination of people who use, have used drugs and alcohol dependently and their families is prevalent and intrenched in society, it can create unnecessary barriers to accessing treatment and inhibit those who wish to move forwards in their recovery. 

A fundamental vehicles of change is the language that we use and how we talk about people who use drugs and alcohol and their circumstances. Language is powerful it can either undermine a person's experiences and create a culture of blame and shame or it can promote hope and show that recovery is possible by not labelling a person by the substances they use. 

The language we use when talking to or about people who use substances should be inclusive, empowering and person centered, meaning that the focus is on the person and not their substance use. 

Language & Identity

The guide is not meant to be an exhaustive list of language to use, and not to use. What became clear through our research is the complexity of the nuances of language and preference very much depends on the individual and the context. What one person might find empowering another might find patronising, labeling or not applicable to them. 

For example, to many people in recovery self-identifying as an ‘Addict’ and /or ‘Alcoholic’ and admitting their powerlessness over a substance is a gateway to greater empowerment. This use of language is part of a culture that helps them initiate and sustain their identity and recovery. 

However, because someone self-refers as a certain term or uses specific language to describe their circumstances, this does not make it acceptable for people outside of their community to use the same terminology or language when talking to or about people who use/have used substances. 

When people unfamiliar with recovery terminology hear loaded language such as, ‘Addict’ and/or ‘Alcoholic’ it can create negative biases that lead towards stigma and discrimination. Therefore, It is important that the language used when talking to and about people who use/have used substances dependently by the media, professionals and the public is considerate, inclusive and person-centered.

Pathways to recovery & Language 

When talking about recovery it is important to acknowledge that there is not one pathway to recovery, recovery is a highly personal process and whilst people can share common experiences everyone’s recovery journey is unique to them. A pathway that might work for one person might not work for another.

It is impossible to define what the best language is for everyone in every circumstance when it comes to talking about recovery and addiction. However, we should recognise that words matter. Words influence thoughts and actions; they affect those we speak to and those we speak about. 

Best practice guidelines for use of language  

  • The language you use should not define a person by their substance use or circumstance, try to use ‘People first’ language. i.e., ‘people who use our services’ rather than ‘service user’, or, ‘a person who is currently using drugs’, rather than ‘drug user.’  
  • Use terms that are strength-based and empowering, for example instead of talking about someone who is ‘non-compliant’ or ‘unengaged’ use terms such as ‘chooses not to’. Or ‘doesn’t wish to’  
  • Use sensitive recovery-focused language, being careful not to disempower or victimise people seeking help for drug and alcohol use or their mental health. winners and losers and that people still in active addiction are not ‘fighting hard enough’  

    • Avoid language that attributes blame such as 'battling addiction', ‘fighting addiction’ - which can imply there are winners and losers and that people still in active addiction are not ‘fighting hard enough’
    • Try to avoid language that can trivialise a person’s circumstances such as ‘drug problems’ 'alcohol issues' 'mental health problems'  
    • Where appropriate use language that inspires hope that people can change – instead of implying that dependency to substances is a fixed state labelling someone as a drug user we could say ‘a person who is currently using drugs’ or ‘Alex is currently facing multiple needs’
  • Avoid terms that make people feel like the problem such as ‘complex needs’, ‘mental health problems’ instead look for language that is open such as ‘people facing multiple needs’ and ‘Jay has a history of depression and anxiety’
  • Avoid using unnecessarily complicated language and jargon that is hard to understand. Where possible use plain simple English that is accessible and not a cause for confusion


Plain English 

Plain English is copy written with the reader in mind, When copy is written clearly and concisely it is more understandable and accessible for the reader

The basic principles of plain English are­

  • Avoid jargon and acronyms
  • Keep your sentences short 
  • Prefer active verbs 
  • Use 'you' and 'we' 
  • Use words that are appropriate for the reader 


 Find out more about writing in Plain English 

Try using these words 

Instead of these words


People using our services

People that we support

Use the person’s name 

Service User



Community Members (Residentials) 

Service User



Problematic substance use

Substance use

Problematic alcohol/drug use

Substance misuse  

Substance abuse

Substance use issues 

Person currently using drugs/alcohol

Person using drugs problematically

Person with a current dependency on... 




Currently using drugs

Currently using alcohol

Currently using substances   


Using again  

Fallen off the wagon

Had a set back

Person facing multiple needs

Complex needs

Person with multiple needs

Justice System Criminal Justice System 

Person with a conviction/convictions

Person with a historic conviction


The Recovery friendly language guide

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