Conference Coverage

Reframing AUD as treatable may reduce stigma



As alcohol-related death and disease rates rise, framing alcohol use disorder as a treatable disease with neurobiologic underpinnings might help reduce the stigma that many patients endure, according to George F. Koob, PhD, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Dr. George F. Koob, director of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Bethesda, Md.

Dr. George F. Koob

“Alcohol misuse and alcohol use disorder (AUD) have not gone away during the opioid crisis, and [they have] not gone away during the current (COVID-19) pandemic,” Dr. Koob said in a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, which was held as a virtual live event.

There are at least 14 million individuals in the United States with AUD now, compared with 2 million with opioid use disorder, Dr. Koob said.

Clinicians should strive to reduce stigma related to AUD, he said, and reinforce the understanding that these millions of individuals have a treatable chronic condition – just like hypertension or diabetes are treatable chronic conditions.

However, framing AUD as a treatable chronic condition is just one of many issues that need to be addressed, he said, adding that rates of screening and referral for AUD need to be increased among patients with other mental health conditions.

Psychiatrists can play a key role in reducing that screening and treatment gap, though concerningly, data suggest fewer than half of psychiatric patients with substance use disorders (SUDs) are being diagnosed or treated, said Andrew J. Saxon, MD, director of the Center of Excellence in Substance Abuse Treatment and Education (CESATE) VA Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle.

Only about 9% of psychiatrist office visits from 2012 to 2015 involved a substance use disorder diagnosis or prescribed medication, whereas at least 20% of adults with mental health conditions also have an SUD, according to authors of a recent study in Psychiatric Services (2018 Jan 16. doi: 10.1176/

Better efforts are needed to improve training or somehow better incentivize psychiatrists to screen for alcohol use disorder and make sure patients get treatment for addiction, Dr. Saxon said in an interview.

“What we have is a lack of subspecialists in addiction psychiatry,” said Dr. Saxon, former director of the addiction psychiatry residency program at the University of Washington. “That becomes self-perpetuating, because we don’t have the knowledge experts to train the residents, and therefore, the residency programs don’t provide a rich enough experience.”

Changes in alcohol-related deaths

A new report (Alcoholism Clin Exper Res. 2020 Jan;44[1]:178-87) highlights the gravity of the AUD problem, showing that alcohol-related deaths have doubled over the past few decades, Dr. Koob said in his presentation.

Among individuals 16 years of age or older, the number of alcohol-related deaths in the United States rose from 35,914 in 1999 to 72,558 (or about 2.6% of all U.S. deaths) in 2017, according to that report, which was based on U.S. mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics. The largest increase was seen in non-Hispanic white females, according to the investigators.

Alcohol is playing a more prominent role in “deaths of despair,” said Dr. Koob, noting that it contributes to about one-quarter of suicides and up to 20% of drug overdoses. “Probably even more salient is that half of liver disease in the United States is now caused by alcohol,” he added.

Misuse of alcohol is correlated with poor mental health, an observation that Dr. Koob said was particularly relevant to the current COVID-19 pandemic, he said, since alcohol is commonly used to cope with stress and symptoms of mental health conditions.

“In the end, it makes the prognosis worse,” he said.


Recommended Reading

Kratom: What we know, what to tell your patients
MDedge Psychiatry
Expert: Eliminating HCV ‘sounds ambitious, but I think it’s possible’
MDedge Psychiatry
What psychiatrists can do to prepare for the coming pandemic
MDedge Psychiatry
Should physicians with OUDs return to practice after treatment?
MDedge Psychiatry
COVID-19 prompts ‘lifesaving’ policy change for opioid addiction
MDedge Psychiatry
New ASAM guideline released amid COVID-19 concerns
MDedge Psychiatry
Elderly Americans carry heavier opioid burden
MDedge Psychiatry
Researchers investigate impact of smoking on COVID-19 risk
MDedge Psychiatry
Screening for adolescent substance use; Changing routines during COVID-19
MDedge Psychiatry
COVID-19: An opportunity, challenge for addiction treatment, NIDA boss says
MDedge Psychiatry