UT needs to drop stigmatized language from its mental health terminology

Isabelle Costello

Middle school health classes taught us that addicts are the equivalent of rock bottom. Whether you agree with that mental image or not, the bias is ingrained in us collectively. Though it may take decades for society to drop the stigma associated with addiction, a simple switch in everyday vocabulary holds the power to jumpstart the process.

UT –– home of the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research, the Addiction Research Institute and the Center of Addiction Research –– needs to replace the term “addiction” with “substance use disorder” in its academic and clinical vocabulary to prove to students that their university sees the person first and the behavioral disorder second. 

In its labelling of its research facilities and student resources, UT has forgotten about the supposed motivation behind the research in the first place: students reaching out for help. 

“Addiction and substance abuse may be clinically really similar, but it’s the connotation that makes them different,” Mia Hay, women and gender studies freshman said. “An addiction center does not sound like somewhere you go to. It sounds like somewhere you’re sent.” 

Though our abstinence-only public health education taught us that addicts exist only at the point of no return, misuse of substances can occur at any point of dependency. If you wanted to direct a person towards help, though, you would be classifying your friend, maybe the friend that simply gets a little too antsy when they can’t take a hit of their Juul in class, as an addict –– a word that can mistakenly imply to patients that the problem is not only out of control but also their fault. 

This labeling system completely ignores the humanistic side of medicine. Isaac G. Martinez, clinical psychologist and UT alumnus, discourages the label “addict.” Martinez explained the positive medicinal results seen when we use “substance use disorder” instead, a word that encompasses a larger spectrum of severity. 

“(Patients with substance use disorders) respond (positively) because you’re taking the time to find some interest in their everyday life instead of just looking at a diagnostic label,” Martinez said. “There’s so much more to that person. You can never truly capture it in one label.” 

An affiliate faculty researcher at the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research explained that UT’s use of the term “addiction” comes down more to politics and historical norms than ignoring stigma. The process of renaming is intricate in its relationship to donor funding, and the terminology replacement would take time, they said.

Essentially, the issue at hand is one of prioritization: sticking with the comfortable norm at the expense of student wellbeing.

UT does not need to contribute to the already strong construct of stigma surrounding substance abuse. If a simple word change has the power to ease some guilt off of at least one student when they admit they need help, is there really any justification for not following it through?

UT, it’s time to examine why exactly you’re so against changing the perception of students who seek help. Healthy Horns are certainly important, but before you can make us healthy, you must see us as human.

Costello is a neuroscience freshman from Boerne, TX.