Changing the words used to describe someone struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction may significantly alter the attitudes of health care professionals, even those who specialize in addiction treatment. Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers have found that health professionals' answers to survey questions about a hypothetical patient varied depending on whether he was described as a "substance abuser" or as "having a substance use disorder." Their study will appear in the International Journal of Drug Policy and has been released online.
"We found that referring to someone with the 'abuser' terminology evokes more punitive attitudes than does describing that person's situation in exactly the same words except for using 'disorder' terminology," says John F. Kelly, PhD, associate director of the MGH Center for Addiction Medicine, who led the study. "Reducing the use of such stigmatizing terms could help diminish the shame, guilt and embarrassment that act as barriers, keeping people from seeking help."
The authors note that misuse of alcohol and other drugs is the leading public health problem in the U.S. and that, while treatment can be very successful, it is sought by only 10 percent of affected individuals. The stigma against addiction problems is often cited as a major reason for not seeking treatment. Even though the World Health Organization acknowledged "abuser" as a stigmatizing term 30 years ago, it remains in common usage. The current study was designed to determine whether calling someone "a substance abuser" versus "having a substance use disorder" led to different judgments about the individual's ability to regulate behavior, the need for treatment versus punishment and whether that person could be a social threat.
The investigators randomly distributed surveys to more than 700 mental health professionals attending two 2008 conferences focused on mental health and addiction. The surveys began
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Massachusetts General Hospital