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Doing away with pejorative labels can ease path to getting help with addiction

I am responding to Felice Freyer’s excellent article on the negative effects of pejorative labeling in describing people with addiction problems or of asking them to so self-identify (“A struggle to rewrite the language of addiction”).

Freyer sought opinions on this issue from a wide variety of prominent addiction researchers and people who have suffered from addictions.

However, she could also have noted there have been more than 26,000 free meetings in Massachusetts since 1990 of groups using the SMART Recovery Self-Help Program, which eschews such labeling. We are all multifaceted, complex individuals. No one would suggest or expect that people with a diabetes problem would describe themselves in an introductory setting by saying, “I am a diabetic.”

Some people, who perhaps have denied for years the severity and tenacity of their addiction problem, appear to have benefited from affirming its seriousness by accepting such stigmatizing terminology. However, many find it degrading or humiliating, and research suggests it has a negative impact on the individual, treatment providers, friends, and families.


Attending one’s first addiction-recovery meeting is usually a frightening prospect, and something many people put off doing, sometimes for years. The less degrading the experience can be expected to be, the more likely there will be less of a barrier to attending.

Dr. Joseph Gerstein

The writer is founding president of the SMART Recovery Self-Help Network.