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Does the language used to describe persons with substance use disorder elicit negative stereotypes of those individuals? Among 500 mental health clinicians, individuals labeled as either “a person with substance use disorder” or “a substance abuser” evoked systematically different judgments, with the latter terminology eliciting a negative stereotype (Kelly & Westerhoff, 2010). Similar results were also reported for a sample of 314 non-clinicians (Kelly, Dow, & Westerhoff, 2010).

The purpose of the present study is to extend previous research by Kelly, Dow, and Westerhoff (2010) regarding stigmatizing language related to substance use disorder. A third term, “addict” will be compared to the terms “substance abuser” and “a person with substance use disorder.” Preliminary data suggests that systematic differences in judgments are present. Participants judged “a person with substance use disorder” as a lower social threat and more worthy of blame exoneration. “An addict” was judged as the highest social threat, and “a substance abuser” was judged as most worthy of blame attribution.

Completed analysis of the present study will contribute to psychology’s understanding of the effects of stigmatizing language on the perception of persons with substance use disorder and provide evidence of the harmfulness of stigmatizing language in popular media and public policy conversations. Evidence of the harmfulness of stigmatizing language can aid in further research examining word use in the context of treatment approaches, communication through popular media, and formulating public healthcare policy.

In the midst of an overdose epidemic, recognizing that stigma is a barrier of access to care is more crucial than ever. By identifying the types of stereotypes elicited by both clinical and colloquial terminology, it is possible to make a case for changing the way clinicians, advocates, the media, and policymakers talk about addiction in order to reduce stigma experienced by persons with substance use disorder.


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19 Jul 2022
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  • Event location
    • Nesbitt 1217

  • Event date
    • 3 November 2018

  • Date submitted

    19 July 2022