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Study Examines Power of Labels When Encouraging Addiction Treatment

A new approach to treatment may involve changing the associated lingo. According to Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers, the attitudes of health care professionals toward those with alcoholism or drug addicts could be altered with changing words.

A post in the Science Daily examines the findings of these researchers who surveyed health professionals. This survey included questions about a hypothetical patient that varied depending on whether the patient was described as a “substance abuser” or as “having a substance use disorder.”

“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,” said 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.”

More than 700 mental health professionals attending two 2008 conferences focused on mental health and addiction were included in the survey. On one half of the surveys, the hypothetical patient was referred to as a substance abuser. The other half referred to the hypothetical patient as having a substance use disorder.

Those respondents who received the paragraph that described the patient 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 he was more to blame for his difficulty adhering to 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 explained.

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