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Why Non-Stigmatizing Terminology for Substance Use Disorder Is Important

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is calling for an end to the use of language that stigmatizes or blames patients for addiction, which is a medical disorder. In a new policy statement, "Recommended Terminology for Substance Use Disorders in the Care of Children, Adolescents, Young Adults, and Families," it advocates for the use of medically accurate, person-first terminology.

The policy statement , published in the June 2022 Pediatrics, reviews how substance use historically has historically been viewed as a moral failing in which individuals are blamed for their medical condition.

A chronic condition

"Research has shown us that addiction is a chronic illness that can recur just like many other medical conditions," said Rachel H. Alinsky, MD, MPH, FAAP, lead author of the policy statement, which was written in conjunction with the AAP Committee on Substance Use and Prevention.

"When society uses derogatory terms such as 'substance abuse' and 'drug abuser,' it creates perceptions that people with substance use disorders do not deserve help or treatment. Instead of labeling people with these terms, we should be first recognizing the individual as a person and using medically accurate language such as 'a person with a substance use disorder."

The policy statement contains a summary of problematic language to be avoided, paired with the recommended appropriate language and an explanation.

AAP recommends:

  • Pediatricians, policy makers, government agencies, and media should use medically accurate terminology as opposed to stigmatizing jargon in all communications and medical records.

  • All should use person-first language that respects the dignity of an individual. For instance, use "person who uses opioids" rather than "drug abuser," or "infant born substance exposed" instead of "addicted baby."

  • Professional entities should encourage authors submitting manuscripts or materials for publication in their journals to use medically accurate and respectful person-first language.

The power of words

The policy statement also notes that many of the common pejorative words used to describe people with substance use disorder have racist connotations.

"Pediatricians know the power of words and are in an excellent position as role models, clinicians, and researchers to replace harmful language with terms that respect the dignity of people who have substance use disorders," Dr. Alinsky said."

5/23/2022 12:00 AM
American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2022)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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