Does it matter how we refer to individuals with substance-related conditions? A randomized study of two commonly used terms

Int J Drug Policy. 2010 May;21(3):202-7. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2009.10.010. Epub 2009 Dec 14.


Objective: Stigma is a frequently cited barrier to help-seeking for many with substance-related conditions. Common ways of describing individuals with such problems may perpetuate or diminish stigmatizing attitudes yet little research exists to inform this debate. We sought to determine whether referring to an individual as "a substance abuser" vs. "having a substance use disorder" evokes different judgments about behavioral self-regulation, social threat, and treatment vs. punishment.

Method: A randomized, between-subjects, cross-sectional design was utilized. Participants were asked to read a vignette containing one of the two terms and to rate their agreement with a number of related statements. Clinicians (N=516) attending two mental health conferences (63% female, 81% white, M age 51; 65% doctoral-level) completed the study (71% response rate). A Likert-scaled questionnaire with three subscales ["perpetrator-punishment" (alpha=.80); "social threat" (alpha=.86); "victim-treatment" (alpha=.64)] assessed the perceived causes of the problem, whether the character was a social threat, able to regulate substance use, and should receive therapeutic vs. punitive action.

Results: No differences were detected between groups on the social threat or victim-treatment subscales. However, a difference was detected on the perpetrator-punishment scale. Compared to those in the "substance use disorder" condition, those in the "substance abuser" condition agreed more with the notion that the character was personally culpable and that punitive measures should be taken.

Conclusions: Even among highly trained mental health professionals, exposure to these two commonly used terms evokes systematically different judgments. The commonly used "substance abuser" term may perpetuate stigmatizing attitudes.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Random Allocation
  • Stereotyping*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / psychology*
  • Terminology as Topic*