4/9/2014, Confronting the Stigma of Opioid Use Disorder—and Its Treatment


First, the understanding of opioid use disorder as a medical illness is still overshadowed by its misconception as a moral weakness or a willful choice.6 This misconception has historically separated this illness and its treatment from the rest of health care. Within the substance use treatment community, many still believe that recovery depends solely on willpower to abstain from all opioids, including methadone and buprenorphine. As a result, many who provide residential services force patients receiving methadone or buprenorphine to taper off of medication as a condition of initial or continued treatment, and many counselors consider taking medication a character weakness…

Methadone and buprenorphine effectively treat opioid use disorder, but not cocaine, sedative, cannabis, nicotine, or alcohol use disorder, and not depression, diabetes, hypertension, asthma, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or HIV infection…

Third, language mirrors and perpetuates the stigma related to treatment of opioid use disorder with medications. The health care system, and therefore the public, does not routinely talk about opioid use disorder and its treatment as medical care, but rather often may assign judgmental, pejorative terms. Urine test results are called “clean” or “dirty” rather than “positive,” “expected,” “negative,” or “unexpected.” Medically indicated situations in which patients receiving methadone or buprenorphine are tapering or decreasing their doses are described as “detoxification,” as though the medications are toxins poisonous to the body. Patients with opioid use disorder are referred to as “clean” when they are in recovery or managing symptoms and are referred to as “dirty” if they are still demonstrating symptoms of their illness. Within the substance use treatment sector, therapy that does not involve a medication is known as “drug-free” with the implication that by taking a medication such as methadone or buprenorphine, a person cannot be in recovery. Health care practitioners, and many lay people, refer to people with opioid use disorder as “junkies.” While the term “junkie” originated because of the heroin individuals were using, it now is broadly associated particularly with the people who use illicit opioids. Who would use similar terms about a patient with diabetes and an elevated hemoglobin A1C level?

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