What’s Wrong With Calling Someone an Addict?

In recent years, the terms “addict” and “alcoholic” have been gradually falling out of favor as ways to refer to people with substance use disorders. Many people have begun to publicly advocate against these terms, including the current acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Michael Botticelli. Those who want to eliminate these terms believe that they have contributed to the persistent idea that people with substance use disorders have poor willpower or willingly engage in self-destructive behavior. This idea has been discredited by research that shows addiction is a chronic disease of the brain. Nevertheless, many people continue to see addiction as a willpower issue, and, as a result, maintain a negative view of people with addiction.

Substance Use Disorders Often Go Untreated

This attitude leaves many people dealing with addiction feeling ashamed and stigmatized. Although addiction can result in serious long-term health deterioration, and can even be fatal, only around 20 percent of the people suffering from addiction seek treatment. Some of this reluctance to seek care comes from concern over criminal consequences, since the use of most illegal drugs remains a felony that can result in extended prison sentences. However, the fear of legal consequences is certainly not the only factor that discourages people from seeking substance abuse treatment. Some studies have estimated that as many as 85 percent of people with alcohol use disorders do not seek treatment for their problem, despite the fact that alcohol is legal in the U.S. for those 21 and older. Obviously, factors other than a fear of legal repercussions are at play. Many people feel greatly ashamed about their illness, and worry about how other people will view them if they admit their problem with substance use. Terms like addict and alcoholic contribute to this by making it seem that people are entirely defined by their illnesses. Adopting alternate phrases such as “person with a substance use disorder” helps to emphasize both the presence of an illness as well as the humanity of the person suffering from this illness.

Professionals Influenced by Choice of Language

A study undertaken by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in 2010 suggested that even professionals could be influenced by the terms that are used to refer to people with substance use problems. This study asked 500 mental health professionals to review a hypothetical case study involving a patient who had violated a court order to stop using drugs and alcohol. The case study varied in a single respect – one version referred to the patient as a substance abuser, while a second version referred to the person as having a substance use disorder. The results of the study found that the professionals whose case study used the term “abuser” were more likely to blame the patient for failing to comply and to recommend harsher consequences. Despite the fact that approximately one-third of the professionals in the study specialized in addiction treatment, the choice of language referring to the hypothetical patient still appeared to strongly influence their responses.

Even Patients Can Be Mindful of Terms

Some people feel that even those who are dealing with substance use disorders need to be wary of the words they use in reference to themselves and to people dealing with similar disorders. In 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, it has long been commonplace for people to begin their recovery process by admitting their problems and declaring themselves to be alcoholics or addicts. However, abandoning this kind of language may help individuals overcome their own feelings of shame regarding their illnesses. It could also help spread the message that using these terms to refer to people with substance use disorders is offensive and potentially harmful.

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