Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Words used to describe substance-use patients can alter attitudes, contribute to stigma

Date:
January 15, 2010
Source:
Massachusetts General Hospital
Summary:
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.

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 with a paragraph describing the current situation of "Mr. Williams," who is having trouble adhering to a court-ordered treatment program requiring abstinence from alcohol and other drugs. On half of the surveys, he is referred to as a "substance abuser;" on the others, he is described as having "a substance use disorder," with the rest of the narrative being exactly the same. The survey consisted of 32 statements about Mr. Williams' situation, and participants were asked to indicate how much they agreed or disagreed with those statements.

More than 500 completed surveys were returned, and one third of the responding participants indicated they had a professional focus on addiction. While the way "Mr. Williams" was described did not significantly change whether respondents regarded him as a threat or thought he should be referred for treatment, participants who received the paragraph describing him as a "substance abuser" were significantly more likely to agree that he should be punished for not following his required treatment plan. They were also more likely to agree with statements implying that that he was more to blame for his difficulty adhering to the court requirements.

"Our results imply that these punitive attitudes may be evoked by use of the 'abuser' term, whether individuals are conscious of it or not, and suggest that this term perpetuates that kind of thinking," Kelly explains. "From the perspective of the individual sufferers, who often feel intense self-loathing and self-blame, such terminology may add to the feelings that prevent them from seeking help."

Kelly notes that terms like "abuser" are not used in other clinical areas -- individuals with eating-related problems are almost universally referred to as having an "eating disorder" and not as "food abusers." While national and international health agencies have advocated eliminating "substance abuser," the term remains in common use, even in literature from federal agencies.

"There's an old proverb that states, if you want something to survive and flourish, call it a flower; if you want to kill it, call it a weed," he adds. "Saying that someone has a substance use disorder conveys the notion that they are suffering from something that may be treatable, which of course is true. Anything we can do to eradicate or minimize stigma-related obstacles to treatment will help reduce the prodigious social impact these disorders have on individuals and society, and changing the way we refer to affected individuals is one simple and achievable step towards that goal."

Kelly is an associate professor in the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry. Cassandra Westerhoff of the MGH Center for Addiction Medicine is co-author of the International Journal of Drug Policy study, which was funded by an MGH institutional grant.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Massachusetts General Hospital. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Massachusetts General Hospital. "Words used to describe substance-use patients can alter attitudes, contribute to stigma." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 January 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100113122310.htm>.
Massachusetts General Hospital. (2010, January 15). Words used to describe substance-use patients can alter attitudes, contribute to stigma. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 21, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100113122310.htm
Massachusetts General Hospital. "Words used to describe substance-use patients can alter attitudes, contribute to stigma." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100113122310.htm (accessed April 21, 2014).

Share This



More Mind & Brain News

Monday, April 21, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Study On Artists' Brain Shows They're 'Structurally Unique'

Study On Artists' Brain Shows They're 'Structurally Unique'

Newsy (Apr. 17, 2014) The brains of artists aren't really left-brain or right-brain, but rather have extra neural matter in visual and motor control areas. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Is Apathy A Sign Of A Shrinking Brain?

Is Apathy A Sign Of A Shrinking Brain?

Newsy (Apr. 17, 2014) A recent study links apathetic feelings to a smaller brain. Researchers say the results indicate a need for apathy screening for at-risk seniors. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Are School Dress Codes Too Strict?

Are School Dress Codes Too Strict?

AP (Apr. 16, 2014) Pushing the limits on style and self-expression is a rite of passage for teens and even younger kids. How far should schools go with their dress codes? The courts have sided with schools in an era when school safety is paramount. (April 16) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Could Even Casual Marijuana Use Alter Your Brain?

Could Even Casual Marijuana Use Alter Your Brain?

Newsy (Apr. 16, 2014) A new study conducted by researchers at Northwestern and Harvard suggests even casual marijuana use can alter your brain. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins