A new study claims that the use of word 'substance abuser' for those struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction prevents them from seeking help.
Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers used two terms "substance abuser" and "having a substance use disorder" addressing a hypothetical patient, while quizzing health care professionals, as part of the study.
The aim was to see if there was a change of attitude.
More than 700 mental health professionals attending two 2008 conferences focused on mental health and addiction, were provided with surveys focusing on drugs and alcohol 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.
It was found that in one third of returned surveys the responding participants indicated they had a professional focus on addiction.
Even though the way "Mr. Williams" was described did not significantly change, yet 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 also seemed to agree with statements implying that that he was more to blame for his difficulty adhering to the court requirements.
John F. Kelly, associate director of the MGH Center for Addiction Medicine, who led the study, said: "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.
"Reducing the use of such stigmatizing terms could help diminish the shame, guilt and embarrassment that act as barriers, keeping people from seeking help."
He explained: "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.
"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."
"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.
"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."
The study will soon be published in the International Journal of Drug Policy.