Language Has the Power of Life and Death

Whenever people ask me about why I do the work that I do, I always tell them that it’s because harm reduction saved my life.

Harm reduction saved my life because it made me feel like a human being again. It was the compassionate, empathetic, and non-judgmental people who welcomed me with open arms and called me by my name who saved my life. I was able to see myself as a human being because the people around me treated me as such—they looked at me, a person who used drugs—as a human being rather than as a “zombie,” the way society has conditioned us to view people who use drugs—which justifies dehumanizing treatment.

Harm reduction showed me the power of language. “The worst part of repeatedly hearing your negative definition of me, is that I begin to believe it myself”—the words in Eddie Ellis’s Language Letter took on a more personal meaning for me as I processed the ways that I had begun to own the negative definitions that others had given to me because of my drug use. People-first language humanized me—it saved my life and has the power to humanize others, even people who don’t use drugs.

I chose harm reduction because it chose me—I’m dedicated to extending that same courtesy of humanity to others. My role as a harm reductionist and the Senior Co-Chair of the Peer Network of New York (PNNY) is to work toward ending stigma for people who use drugs. People are gradually acknowledging the dangers of stigma and we have to remain accountable to one another to continue the fight to end stigma.

The conversation about stigma isn’t new and it is not and should not only be applicable to harm reductionists and people who use drugs—that’s why it’s important to take steps to set guidelines for humanizing language to hold journalists accountable, as the Associated Press has done. Additionally, that is why the Peer Network of New York worked with the Drug Policy Alliance to develop a glossary of terms to use when talking about drug use.

The glossary, Talking about Drug Use: A Glossary for Elected Officialswas developed particularly for elected officials because they are the leaders and influencers of our communities; as they shift their language use it can help break down stigma and move society away from derogatory, dehumanizing or stigmatizing language. The Glossary is not exhaustive, but it’s a living document that will continue to change over time.

The glossary is also meant to prompt doctors, lawyers, social workers, all social service providers, and people who work directly with people who use drugs to remain cognizant of the language they’re using. It’s a small effort to get others to humanize people who use drugs—to put themselves in other people’s shoes as they think about language use in the context of service provision.

You can’t judge people if you’re trying to save lives. We need to understand that stigma is isolating and dangerous. Our society must acknowledge that many people have had some sort of discomfort or trauma in their lives that might have lead them to substance dependence or another behavior that society doesn’t approve of, and the use of derogatory language only pushes people further away from getting services.

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