The misuse of drugs and alcohol sometimes is referred to as drug and alcohol “abuse.” Many government agencies centered on addiction use the term in their names. This includes the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Faces & Voices of Recovery and the Recovery Research Institute of Harvard Medical School & Massachusetts General Hospital hope to change that. These organizations are leading a petition that calls on the U.S. Congress to rename federal organizations that refer to addiction as “abuse.”
Several addiction and behavioral health organizations have endorsed the petition. These include: American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry, the Harm Reduction Coalition, the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers, and the National Council for Behavioral Health.
The petition argues that referring to a person as a “drug abuser” or to the misuse of substances as “drug abuse” can increase stigma. This stigma may then create a barrier to treatment and eventual recovery.
Rethinking the use of “abuse” in addiction
A position statement published by the Society of Behavioral Medicine inspired the petition. In the statement, Dr. John Kelly and Valerie Earnshaw, PhD, called for the term “abuse” to be removed from federal administrations that address addiction. Instead, the word should be replaced with neutral, less stigmatized terminology.
Some suggested names for the organizations include the “National Institute on Alcohol Use Disorder,” the “National Institute on Drug Use Disorders,” or “Substance Use Disorder and Mental Health Services Administration.” However, changing the names of many federal health agencies would require an act of Congress.
The authors argue that terms such as “abuse” may convey that a person with addiction is engaged in “willful misconduct,” rather than conveying that their addiction and substance misuse are a disease that requires treatment. The word “abuse” may give the impression that an individual should receive punishment rather than treatment for substance misuse.
You can download and read the full PDF version of the brief, “End the Fatal Paradox: Change the Names of our Federal Institutes on Addiction.”
Research on addiction and stigma
Drs. Kelly and Earnshaw refer to several studies that examine the effect of stigma on addiction treatment and recovery.
A 2013 study in Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that health professionals generally hold a negative attitude towards patients with substance use disorders. This could reduce patient engagement and empowerment, potentially leading to worse treatment outcomes. Get the PDF of the study here.
Another team of researchers conducted a survey to find whether referring to an individual as “a substance abuser,” compared to “having a substance use disorder,” made a difference. Study participants were more likely to believe that the individual was personally to blame and required punitive action when they were exposed to “substance abuser” language. The study was published in 2010 in the International Journal on Drug Policy.
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