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New language regarding addiction aims to reduce stigma and blame

December 31, 2013
by Shannon Brys, Associate Editor
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During a recent White House summit on drug policy reform, recommendations were made to change the language used to describe addiction.

Harvard University’s John Kelly, director of the new Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital, spoke at the summit and to the current director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske, about the stigma attached to people with substance abuse problems.

Kelly stated, “Addiction is like many other medical illnesses, in that there’s an interaction between the genetics and the environment and this makes some people more susceptible.” In addition, Kelly said the rhetoric and language of “the war on drugs” talks about “abuse” and “abusers,” and the new movement toward smarter criminal justice and a more public health approach needs to look at addiction as a medical condition. He also urged the use of the term “substance use disorder” which is more accurate medical terminology.

“This is a giant step forward for those suffering from and treating addiction,” said Kim Dennis MD, medical director and CEO of Timberline Knolls. “The words that historically have been used in the addiction field are rooted in old beliefs that are stigmatizing, blaming and shaming. The words ‘abuse’ and ‘abuser’ carry obvious negative connotations and imply choice. Punishment doesn’t cure substance use disorders any more than it would cure heart disease, depression or an eating disorder.”

In an article with CommonHealth, Kelly discusses a research experiment in which doctoral level mental health clinicians were provided information about individuals who were experiencing legal trouble due to alcohol and drugs. Half of the descriptions had the person described as a “substance abuser” and half described the person as someone with a “substance use disorder.” These different descriptions were randomly distributed and it was found that the clinicians who were exposed to the term “substance abuser” were “significantly more likely to judge the person as more to blame and more deserving of punishment than the exact same individual described as having a substance use disorder.” He thinks that by eliminating certain terms such as “abuse” and replacing them with terms such as “misuse,” stigma will be reduced and a barrier for individuals seeking treatment will start to break away.

“Individuals don’t choose to have a substance use disorder that destroys their lives and the lives of their loved ones,” Dennis added. “They and only they have the power of choice in whether or not to take the necessary ‘medicine’ to recovery. This is where the choice lies.”

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