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Rethinking the language of substance abuse

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In December 2019, Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Josh Gordon was suspended indefinitely from the NFL for violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. Gordon, once known as one of the most promising wide receivers of the last few decades, had a tumultuous relationship with the NFL as a result of his struggles with substance use. However, the headlines from major sports and news outlets often describe Gordon and other professional and collegiate athletes who struggle with substance use as “violating policies of abuse.” Media coverage of such athletes frequently imposes labels such as “violation” and “abuse,” implying a greater level of personal responsibility and willful misconduct than the biological process of addiction would typically allow. Gordon’s story brought attention not only to the adversity and impairments of substance use, but also the stigmatizing language that often accompanies it.

Shifting to less stigmatizing terminology

In DMS-5, use of the terminology substance use disorder fosters a more biologically-based model of behavior, and encourages recovery-oriented terminology.1 However, for most collegiate and professional sports leagues, the policies regarding substance use often use the term substance abuse, which can perpetuate stigma and a misunderstanding of the underpinnings of substance use, insinuating a sense of personal responsibility, deliberate misconduct, and criminality. When an individual is referred to as an “abuser” of substances, this might suggest that they are willful perpetrators of the disease on themselves, and thus may be undeserving of care.2 Individuals referred to as “substance abusers” rather than having a substance use disorder are more likely to be subjected to negative perceptions and evaluations of their behaviors, particularly by clinicians.

Individuals with substance use disorders are often viewed more negatively than individuals with physical or other psychiatric disorders, and are among the most stigmatized and marginalized groups in health care.4,5 Today, lawmakers, advocates, and health care professionals across the country are working to integrate destigmatizing language into media, policy, and educational settings in order to characterize substance use as a neurobiological process rather than a moral fault.6 For example, legislation in Maine passed in 2018 removed references to stigmatizing terms in policies related to substance use, replacing substance abuse and drug addict with recovery-oriented terminology such as substance use disorder and person with a substance use disorder.7

Individuals with substance use disorders often fear judgment and stigma during clinical encounters, and commonly cite this as a reason to avoid seeking care.8 Words matter, and if we are not careful, the language we use can convey meaning and attitudes that perpetuate the stigma that prevents so many from accessing treatment.9,10 Individuals with a substance use disorder should feel institutionally supported, and the language of policies and the clinicians who treat these patients should reflect this as well.

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