Monday, October 24, 2016

Stigma and Addiction

The basic position that I take on this blog is that stigma is an overblown concept.  Certainly no professional should ever be in the position of treating a person with a mental illness or addiction in any way that conforms to stereotypes.  I have been in many situations where that occurred during my training.  In those days a lot of alcoholics were admitted to medicine services because they needed detoxification by people who knew what they were doing .  They also needed close monitoring by nursing staff.  That did not mean that they were treated like all of the other medical patients.  There was usually a sense of hopelessness on the part of the house staff who could see several of these men admitted repeatedly during a 3 month rotation.  Men with hepatic encephalopathy, recurrent pancreatitis, alcoholic hepatitis, and upper GI bleeding from varices.  During one of the rotations, I encountered the term "incorrigible alcoholic" right there in the PGY3 note countersigning my intern note.  I had never seen a term in a medical chart like that before.  I had to look it up to make sure I knew what it meant and sure enough the first definition was bad beyond reform.

These reactions extended far beyond alcohol use problems.  Young addicts using various street and prescriptions drugs would present confused and aggressive.  At times paranoia and aggressive behavior were also prominent problems.  Nursing staff and house staff were frequently injured and in these emotionally charged encounters, the word "dirtball" was frequently uttered.  It was clear that at least some professionals viewed the confusion or aggressive behavior as volitional on the part of the patient and classified them as people who were intentionally trying to injure the staff.  The only way that you can make it in psychiatry is if you realize that aggressive behavior is a component of the illness.  It needs to be contained, but it does not need to be seen as a conscious "choice" of the patient involved.  Neither does their hygiene, cognitive problems, general lack of self care, inability to follow through with discharge instructions or stay away from drugs or alcohol.  That is not "excusing" them because you don't think they have a legitimate illness or can't prove that their behavior  is biologically based.  It is treating them like a human being and recognizing that you might be bringing too much emotion into the equation yourself.  There is nobody who needs a doctor with a cool head more than an addict or an alcoholic.

Those experiences led me to pay close attention to an opinion piece in JAMA about stigma and addiction.  One of the authors was from the White House Office of National Dug Control Policy.  The other was from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.  I looked even closer when it became apparent that their arguments were focused on the stigma arguments that were used for mental illness.  The authors use mental illness and the early days of the HIV epidemic as examples of how the language used to describe these patients implied moral deficiencies and led to discrimination.  They go on to cite studies of how differences in words can affect how treatment decision made by professionals can be similarly biased depending  on how loaded the stigmatizing term is.  They describe how the fear of stigma keeps people out of treatment.  Finally they outline the government's approach to changing the language about addiction and how that will help.  The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy is releasing Changing the Language of Addiction for guidance on these issues.  Common examples include changing "substance abuser" or person with a drug "habit" to a "person with a substance use disorder."  Near the end of the essay they acknowledge language changes are not enough.

Their initiative will not have any impact for the same the same reason that the anti-stigma campaigns for mental illness don't have any impact and here is why:

1.  The real bias occurs at the level of the insurance industry -  Coverage for addictive disorders varies widely and the only unifying theme seems to be rationing of treatment resources.  That rationing has been going on for 30 years and has led to inadequate treatment capacity.  The best time to provide treatment is right at the point that the affected person needs help.  Setting them up for an appointment 2 - 4 weeks later does not make any sense and can be dangerous if they are using dangerous levels of addictive compounds.  It makes absolutely no sense at all to deny care to a person who is using dangerous levels of addictive drugs simply because they have not yet tried outpatient treatment.

2.  Clinicians don't resist evidence based treatment  - there is nobody around to deliver it -  It is well known that psychiatric and addiction services are understaffed and have been for decades and the situation will probably get worse.  The number of addiction psychiatrists and addictionologists is even lower on population based metrics.  Policy makers seem to have the idea that primary care physicians will start actively treating addiction because treatment is currently described as being contained in a medication.  A recent study showed the underutilization of buprenorphine by these physicians.  They expressed in that same survey that they wished that they had someone who they could refer their patient to.  It is very difficult to go from prescribing opioids for a pain diagnosis to diagnosing and treating addiction in the  same setting.  It is also very difficult to provide treatment without adequate cross coverage.  There need to be adequate numbers of clinicians in any primary care clinic who are interested and competent to treat addictions.  In the case of buprenorphine maintenance. they need to be licensed to prescribe it.  Even then they need referrals sources to physicians who specialize in treating addictions and have some access to more resources.

3.  Community factors are prominent -  Insurance companies still discriminate against anyone with a substance use disorder.  I had a recent conversation with a person who needed some form of treatment. but was concerned about what would happen once the medical records got out to a long term insurance carrier.  Previous experience suggests that company takes 5 years to reconsider any application from a person with an alcohol or drug use disorder.  He  declined any form of treatment that would become part of the medical record that could be accessed by the insurance carrier.

4.  The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 is a bust - time to stop pretending that it means much -    This is the highly acclaimed parity act started by Senators Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici.  Discrimination and unfair treatment are widespread and contrary to what was expected there has been no boom in treatment for addictions.  Addiction and mental illnesses are still subjected to the same rationing policies and lack of infrastructure as they were before this act.

5.  It all starts and ends with the government -  This essay has that familiar ring to it:  "We are from the government and we are here to help you."  Let's not forget who started the system of discrimination against people with mental illness and addiction in the first place - the government at all levels.  The government invented the managed care industry as its surrogate in the first place.  If they were really interested in solving the problem - they could use the same top down approach that they used to create it in the first place.  They could provide medical detoxification in hospitals and coordinate the development of those guidelines.  They could provide access to Addiction Psychiatrists and  Addiction medicine practitioners.  They could open up bed capacity for residential and sober house care.  They could fund clinics where medication assisted treatments for opioid use and alcohol use are conducted.  They could fund addiction centers of excellence.  They could fund research on treatment for court ordered offenders and whether it is effective.  This is all evidence-based care, but the article suggests that primary care physicians who are currently overworked by government mismanagement are going to suddenly see hundreds or thousands of new patients with addictions.  Suggesting that this is a language based problem put the blames directly on clinicians.  It is clear to me that there are no psychiatrists blaming people for mental illness or addiction.  Who are these people and how extensive is the problem?  The idea that everyone needs to be reformed or reeducated is a familiar tactic used by politicians and policy makers.  It was the rationale for managed care rationing in the first place.

6.  Prevention is a priority - The prevention of drug use is the surest way to prevent increasing number of people from experiencing morbidity and mortality due to drug and alcohol use.  Prevention of drug use at this point in time is historically difficult as the country swings into another era of permissive attitudes toward drug use.  Individuals not abusing their first opioids will have a much greater impact on the prevalence of addiction than all of treatments after an addiction has started.

All of these factors are what clinicians like me see as everyday interference with helping patients who have a substance use disorder.  Semantics may help some.  Training and recruiting physicians who know that it is only luck that separates them from people with addictions and mental illnesses will help more.  Ending insurance company dominance over clinicians will help the most.

In the end - words don't keep people with addictions from lifesaving treatment.

The government and health insurance companies do.             


George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


1: Botticelli MP, Koh HK. Changing the Language of Addiction. JAMA. 2016 Oct 4;316(13):1361-1362. doi: 10.1001/jama.2016.11874. PubMed PMID: 27701667. (free full text).


  1. The APA would have us believe stigma is the biggest barrier to mental health treatment rather than the very real obstructions you mention. That kind of idea can only come from elitists administrative hybrids who do not see patients.

    There will always be a stigma against certain behaviors as there should be, which is different from the mental illness itself. An alcoholic in recovery will have no problem with stigma, but one starting bar fights on a bender will.

    Almost every new APA President gives the same dumb speech on this issue and nothing really changes. It might be time to focus on something else.

    Certain mental illness will inherently carry a stigma, such as sexual sadism or antisocial personality disorder. That's society acting rationally in self-defense.

    In the post-Sopranos world where even a tough mob boss went to a therapist, the stigma against therapy itself is about as minimal as it could be. Focus on problems of pre-authorization etc. Realistically, I am convinced if you want good therapy and privacy, you have to pay cash anyway.

    1. Agree - it is easy to keep talking about stigma rather than confronting these problems. It is no accident that government agencies are doing the same thing.

  2. The stigma the APA ought to worry about is that of the psychiatrist as Niles Crane, an effete urban bicoastal elite lost in in a romantic world of theory unable to relate to the working class or people with rural sensibilities. I'm not sure how the people running the APA are going to break that since they so epitomize the problem.

    I don't expect them to give up their Augusts at the Vineyard for a duck hunting or portage trip in the woods but it might do them (and their worldview) a lot of good.

    In Minnesota, I suspect this isn't as much of a problem since many urbanites in St. Paul do spend a fair amount of time in places such as the Boundary Waters (which I have done three times with a group of MSP based physicians.)

    1. You are correct - no Crane Brothers here in the Midwest. In fact when I reflect on that show - there is no compelling reason that Frasier Crane had to be a psychiatrist. I suspect that author was just taking a shot at psychiatrists like Woody Allen does. Most of the psychiatrists I know are closer to Marty Crane.

  3. I'm probably a more like Marty, but like Niles and Frasier, I have to admit the chair with the duct tape would drive me bonkers