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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

BU: Language Can Help Reduce Stigma of Substance Use Disorders

Changing the language around drug use can help to reduce the stigma for the 23 million Americans who meet criteria for a substance use disorder, according to a Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) researcher, writing in the American Journal of Medicine with two colleagues from Massachusetts General Hospital.

“Every day in our work, we see and hear individuals described as ‘alcohol/substance abusers,’ and urine toxicology screens coming back ‘dirty’ with drugs,” Dr. Richard Saitz, chair of community health sciences at BUSPH, wrote with co-authors in an editorial in the American Journal of Medicine. “Clinicians may even praise a patient for staying ‘clean’ instead of for having ‘a negative test result.’

“We argue such language is neither professional nor culturally competent and serves only to perpetuate stigma,“ they continued. “Use of such terms may evoke implicit punitive biases and decrease patients’ own sense of hope and self-efficacy for change.”

Dr. Saitz – writing with Dr. Sarah E. Wakeman and Dr. John F. Kelly – said that referring to substance users as “abusers” creates an “implicit cognitive bias that results in punitive judgments that may perpetuate stigmatizing attitudes.” They noted that stigma decreases when people perceive that an individual is not responsible for causing his or her problems, and they cited research indicating that half of the risk for addiction is conferred by genetics.

To read more about the editorial, go to: