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Home > Words matter! Language statement & reference guide.

Madden, Annie and Henderson, Charles [INPUD] . (2020) Words matter! Language statement & reference guide. London: INPUD Secretariat. 7 p.

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Language is fundamental to all human societies. Language is how we make and shape meaning. It is how we create and make sense of the world and the people around us. Language is one of the main ways we communicate our attitudes, beliefs, and values. The language you choose to use can say a lot about you as a person. 

Language is always evolving. One of the reasons we change our language is because we understand its power not only to uplift but also to dehumanise. In recent decades, we have seen progressive changes to language in relation to race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, and mental health. In these areas, we have moved away from language that is pejorative, pathologising, stigmatising, and dehumanising towards language that values people first, promotes equality and inclusion, acknowledges diversity, and is strengths-based. 

What about language & people who use drugs? The need to change our language in relation to people who use drugs has become an increasing topic of discussion, but there is still a long way to go. People who use drugs are highly diverse and their relationship with drug use takes many different forms. Current prohibitionist approaches to drug use and ‘war on drugs’ rhetoric does little to encourage language that acknowledges this diversity. Instead, it promotes and maintains negative stereotypes that construct people who use drugs as morally flawed, inferior, unreliable, and dangerous… 

Language is powerful and our choice of language and words matter! For example, research studies into the effects of stigmatising language in relation to people who use drugs found that simply varying the phrase or word used changed the doctors’ response from a negative or punitive reaction to a more beneficial or therapeutic response.8 This study demonstrates that changing language is not a small or trivial matter, but it is important and can have a positive impact not just on attitudes and judgments, but on the way that people act towards each other.

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