Does our choice of substance related terms influence perceptions of treatment need? An empirical investigation with two commonly used terms



Substance-related terminology is often a contentious topic because certain terms may convey meanings that have stigmatizing consequences and present a barrier to treatment. Chief among these are the labels, “abuse” and “abuser.” While intense rhetoric has persisted on this topic, little empirical information exists to inform this debate. We tested whether referring to an individual as “a substance abuser (SA)” versus “having a substance use disorder” (SUD) evokes different judgments about treatment need, punishment, social threat, problem etiology, and self-regulation. Participants (N = 314, 76% female, 81% White, M age 38) from an urban setting completed an online 35-item assessment comparing two individuals labeled with these terms. Dependent t-tests were used to examine subscale differences. Compared to the SUD individual, the SA was perceived as engaging in willful misconduct, a greater social threat, and more deserving of punishment. The “abuser” label may perpetuate stigmatizing attitudes and serve as a barrier to help-seeking.


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