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Addiction Expert: Treatment Providers Can Perpetuate Media Stereotypes of Patients

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Stereotypes about addiction, perpetuated by the media, can be unintentionally reinforced by addiction professionals, according to a New York addiction expert.

“When you go to a diabetes clinic, you don’t expect your doctor to have diabetes. But many people treating those who are addicted have themselves been treated for addiction, and tend to use the same lingo as their patients to make them feel more comfortable,” Dr. Edwin A. Salsitz, MD, Medical Director, Office-Based Opioid Therapy at Beth Israel Medical Center, said at a recent meeting, “Solutions to the Addiction Crisis.” “They use terms like ‘dirty’ or ‘clean’ to refer to a urine drug test, instead of the more medical ‘positive’ or ‘negative.’ Using slang in addiction medicine can be confusing and demeaning, and reinforce the stigma attached to addiction.”

Salsitz encourages his colleagues to choose their words carefully. “We need to use medical terms for addiction medicine,” he said. “I never use the word ‘addict’—that pigeonholes someone, and defines who they are. I always talk about addicted patients.”

Dr. Edwin A. Salsitz

Addiction professionals’ use of language can unintentionally reinforce how the media portrays addiction and people struggling with it, he said.

He noted the media uses the terms “addict,” “addiction” or “junkie” lightly, and gave examples from newspaper headlines that used terms such as “yoga addict” and “beauty addict.” He also pointed to ads for the fragrance called Dior Addict. Sometimes the word “addictive” is used in a positive way, such as the phrase “lusciously addictive,” to portray something that is appealing, he noted. “Using these terms lightly makes it seem that addiction is not a serious disease,” he added. “When I see the trivializing of this terminology, it offends me.”

When the media portrays people struggling with addiction in a negative light, it is not considered politically incorrect, and there is no widespread objection, Salsitz argued. He gave examples of jokes about methadone clinics made on two recent episodes of “Saturday Night Live,” and a joke Amy Poehler made about pills at the recent Golden Globes Awards. Late-night hosts Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmel have made jokes about junkies and addicts, he said. “These jokes aren’t made out of maliciousness, they’re made out of ignorance, and no one objects. But they are hurtful to patients and their families.”

13 Responses to this article

  1. Avatar of rcapps
    rcapps / April 4, 2013 at 10:46 am

    “many people treating those who are addicted have themselves been treated for addiction, and tend to use the same lingo as their patients to make them feel more comfortable” – Ironically, I am the only counselor in my facility who has been treated for addiction and I am the only counselor here who consistently avoids those labels by using terminology like “illicit-free”, “illicit-positive”, “patients with the disease of addiction”, & “medically assisted treatment”. I spent Tuesday at a training cringing all day repeatedly hearing “clean”, “dirty”, “addicts”, “on methadone”, etc. from counselors with educational levels above mine, from nurses, and even from directors. Please don’t pidgen hole me and others who have been treated for addiction as the ones perpretrating ignorance!

  2. Avatar of Karen
    Karen / March 28, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    The folks at Voices and Faces of Recovery refer to themselves as being “a person in recovery” as opposed to being “an addict”. I think that’s a good start.

  3. Bob Garrity / February 14, 2013 at 7:41 am

    Didn’t anyone tell this guy the new DSM will now call the disease of substance abuse/dependence, “addiction”???

  4. Avatar of N'namdi
    N'namdi / February 9, 2013 at 8:25 pm

    The media can be very mean to people who are addicted to some kind of drug. The medical terms are more appropriate for the world. Maybe then there will be less scrutiny and jokes about people going through something traumatic like addictions.

  5. Ken Wolski / February 9, 2013 at 11:07 am

    Dr. Salsitz says, “many people treating those who are addicted have themselves been treated for addiction.” Substance abuse treatment professionals are some of the most outspoken opponents of medical marijuana. They see the issue through the lens of their personal experience, as part of the 9% of people for whom marijuana use is problematic. Then they say, “Well then, no one should be allowed to use marijuana for any reason.” But this is unfair to the other 91% of the population for whom marijuana use is not only not a problem, but may well provide health benefits, and in fact, may be recommended by a licensed physician.

  6. jboside / February 6, 2013 at 4:31 pm

    You will hve to get probation and parole to change their language.

  7. Avatar of Mark
    Mark / February 6, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    To use words the client understands is more important than worrying about offending somebody else. If the Media uses words that offend then dont watch! they only use what they feel will draw more watchers. I only use what I feel will get my clients to think. If that means saying “Junkey” then so be it. Yet I also relate things such as a possitive test rather than dirty. because every body knows addicts dont want to be “dirty”

  8. Avatar of phoenix
    phoenix / February 5, 2013 at 7:25 pm

    i believe that people should not impose their own lingo for different addictions no matter what it is they should use the proper professional words that are mandated to be used.

  9. Avatar of Sin Mils
    Sin Mils / February 5, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    Media can only reflect back its own societal norms and pill-popping, self-medicating culture – whether it’s drugs or sugar. Language can only communicate – either relate or isolate.

  10. Avatar of Barbara
    Barbara / February 5, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    I also feel that terms like clean and dirty in reference to tox screens sends the wrong message. We don’t say a person with diabetes is dirty if there blood sugar is high. We don’t say a patient with Asthma has relapsed if they don’t take their meds and ends up in the emergency room. I absolutely agree we need to chose our words respectfully in treating this disease like any other disease .

  11. Joshua / April 4, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    There is a fundamental difference between diabetes, asthma and drug abuse. The drug addict consistently chooses to stay addicted while the diabetic and asthmatic cannot cure themselves by simply deciding not to have the disease anymore. When you make comparisons like this, you offend the intellect of thinking people, and your point is lost.

  12. Avatar of anonymous
    anonymous / April 5, 2013 at 9:56 am

    Just an FYI, addiction is a disease and the person addicted cannot just stop using as you seem to think. You should probably do some research on addiction before commenting on an article about it.

  13. Joshua / April 5, 2013 at 11:24 am

    read anything ever written on addiction, the “cure” to this “disease” is always to stop using. whether this process is hard or requires help or counselling does not change the fact that the only way to not be addicted to any drug is to decide to stop using it.

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