Unlabeled: not labeling a blog about labels

Addict. Felon. Junkie. Dopehead. Fiend. Druggie.

Do you know what these are? Anyone can tell you that they’re names for people who use drugs. They’re people who are always looking for their next high. Last I checked though I have never met someone named Junkie… or Felon…. Or Dopehead. These words aren’t the person. They’re a label. A way to categorize a person without ever giving them any sort of dignity or identity outside of their disease.

Labels aren’t new. They aren’t something that has just sprung out of nowhere in the last few years. Labels have been around for decades. In fact, many social sciences actually have theories surrounding the idea of putting labels on people. The main gist of all of these labeling theories is that when society labels someone as a “deviant” for example, then that person is more likely to conform to the actions of that label. Labeling theory goes hand and hand with stigma as the reason that labels, especially the ones in the substance use community, are so powerful is because of the negative stigma that surrounds them.

In the 1970’s a doctor wrote an inquiry where the topic of labels was thoroughly discussed. This doctor quoted a man who said, “it further suggests that the social liability incurred by being labeled "deviant" has the ultimate effects of reinforcing the deviance” and “it is not the effect of the drug that produces the alleged deterioration of character in the addict, but rather the social situations into which he is forced by the law and by the public's conception of addiction which does the damage.” Now, both of these quotes are heavy to try and come to terms with but something to note is that in both, it is not the individual who is to blame for being labeled but rather the judgement of society.

Here’s a quick thought before I continue. Is “a disorder of structure or function in a human, animal, or plant, especially one that produces specific signs or symptoms or that affects a specific location and is not simply a direct result of physical injury” the same thing as “an action or omission that constitutes an offense that may be prosecuted by the state and is punishable by law?” No? Okay, great. So, disease is not the same thing as crime. Now, would you or anyone you know send someone to the hospital for robbing a bank? No? Would you or anyone you know send someone to jail for bronchitis? No? So why in the world are people struggling with substance use disorder being sent to jail instead of to a doctor who can help them recover? One author wrote “the rehabilitation of the treated drug addict is impeded by the social stigma attached to "ex-convicts” and that “the drug addiction hospital has acquired an unmistakable prison atmosphere.”

By “lump[ing all drug users] together in the public mind as immoral and dangerous” these people are being thrown into a category that is more often than not, wrong. The problem with labeling individuals or even groups of people is that labeling is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When a person is labeled one way or the other, they begin to view themselves as such and will act accordingly to conform to that label whether it’s good or bad. Don’t believe me?

“Once involved in deviant behavior, these same persons may self-label and reinforce their deviant behavior pattern.”

“a more deviant self-label at baseline predicted greater drug use at follow-up.”

“a deviant self-concept and behavior can reinforce each other over time.”

Which quote from academic studies makes this idea more real to you? More than that though? How do you think this makes people feel? What if you were labeled as something you weren’t? How would that make you feel? It would make you feel kind of like absolute crap. So how do you think these horrible labels make these individuals feel? When women struggling with substance use disorder who are now in recovery were asked how their labels made them feel their answers were heart wrenching. They felt as though they would never be able to get away from them, or how they’re hanging over them, or that people who didn’t originally give them their labels now treat them as less than human.

People struggling with substance use or abuse are not part of a person, they are a whole person and regardless of their disease they deserve to be treated with love. A very special pair of ladies once said that the only way to combat addiction is with connection. Last I checked labels are not a form of connection in any sense of the word.

Written by: Tara Darcy, Direct Care Specialist at The Recovery Connection

Downs, W. R., Robinson, J. F., & Harrison, L. R. (1996, November 30). Control theory, Labeling theory, and the delivery of services for drug abuse to Adolescents. Retrieved February 02, 2021, from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ553493

Williams, J. R. (1976, March). Monograph series effects of labeling THE “DRUG-ABUSER” an ... Retrieved from https://archives.drugabuse.gov/sites/default/files/monograph06.pdf