The Global Commission on Drug Policy report identifies doctors and healthcare staff as the ones who can champion this change in language, recommending they take the lead in challenging misperceptions of this patient group but we argue that language may be a good start but we also need new attitudes

18 Feb 2018

Ian Hamiliton and Chris Ford in this article argue that language is a good start but as healthworkers we also need to look at our attitudes.

Treating symptoms can sometimes can be an effective way to deal with a health problem. However, this isn’t always the case, particularly when the same symptoms keep re-appearing due to the underlying cause of the problem having not been addressed. So, could the stigmatising language often used to describe people who use drugs or develop problems with drugs simply be the symptom of a belief that is wrong?

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The GCDP report fails to recognise that negative views about such patients are rife amongst health professionals too. Health workers who avoid patients that use drugs or who have minimal contact with them are more likely to hold negative and stigmatising views.

Pretending to care at the same time as concealing your real view is of little value as this group of patients can be well tuned into non-verbal signs of disgust. Without a change in attitude some workers will continue to covertly discriminate by making all manner of assumptions, such as “can’t be helped”, “waster”, “self-induced condition”, “why don’t they pull their socks up”. These assumptions are usually based on distorted truths and myths and lead the clinician to limit the amount of time they make available and the degree of engagement they are prepared to offer.

Language matters enormously but the danger of simply adopting a new vocabulary while retaining many of the same values and attitudes is that we might sound more accepting but really nothing has changes from the patient’s point of view. To quote a prominent person who uses drugs “I don’t really care what you call me but I do care how you treat me!” 

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