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Say This, Not That: Understanding The Disease Of Addiction

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disease of addiction Sometimes, the hardest step in recovery is the very first one. Committing to sobriety is not only physically and emotionally demanding, it’s intimidating. But it’s also refreshing, humbling and in many cases, life saving. When you speak to someone who has recovered from the disease of addiction, you can quickly gain a firsthand experience for what a dramatic positive difference sobriety offers.

New research has shown that this critical first step of seeking help can be deterred by something as simple as the words we use.

Disease Of Addiction: Words matter

Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that addiction is not a matter of moral failure, but rather a dysfunction – a disease – of the brain. But, the problem is that the words most frequently used to describe substance abuse disorders and addiction don’t necessarily reflect that.

Speaking with The Huffington Post, Michael Botticelli, Director of National Drug Control Policy, explained how the words surrounding substance abuse can lead to devastating stigmas that prevent people from seeking help.

“Research shows that the language we use to describe this disease can either perpetuate or overcome the stereotypes, prejudice and lack of empathy that keep people from getting treatment they need,” said Botticelli. In other words, changing this language is a key factor to keeping the door open for those who need it most.

To initiate such change, Botticelli and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) are launching a new glossary of sorts aimed at eliminating prejudicial language. They recommend replacing words with negative connotations like “dirty,” with more appropriate descriptors like “actively using,” and on the flip side, replacing words like “clean,” with “abstinent,” among others.

Using science to combat stigma

Dr. John F. Kelly, Professor of Psychiatry in Addiction Medicine at Harvard Medical School, has worked closely with the ONDCP and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), sharing an abundance of research on addiction treatment and recovery. He also recently spoke with The Huffington Post about how terminology fuels mindsets.

“Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, the language we use actually makes a profound difference in our attitudes and, thus, how we may approach our nation’s number one public health problem,” he said. “[…] Describing an affected person as an individual with, or suffering from, a ‘substance use disorder’ – as opposed to a ‘substance abuser’ – may decrease stigma and increase perceptions of a need for treatment.”

In a 2012 report, SAMHSA found that the U.S. had more than 23 million people who needed treatment for alcohol or drug abuse, yet only 2.5 million of them actually received it. While the treatment gap is significant, undoing the stigmatization associated with alcohol and drug abuse by simply changing how we talk is giant step toward changing perceptions. And these perceptions are paramount to encouraging those with substance abuse disorders to find and receive the help they need.

If you’re struggling with the disease of addiction or need assistance to get treatment for a loved one, remember that stereotypes are just that: stereotypes. Overcoming addiction – just like overcoming stigma – is possible with the right tools and the right support. The Watershed can help. Call our 24/7 hotline today: 1-800-861-1768.




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