Promoting Non-Stigmatizing Language in Texas Higher Ed Courses
Rich Rosing, a professor at Houston Community College in the Human Service Technology Program and a member of the South Southwest ATTC Educational Consortium has helped make strides in reducing stigma in the substance use treatment field by proposing new DAAC (Drug and Alcohol Abuse Counseling) course titles for all community colleges across Texas that reflect person-centered, strengths-based language.
Rosing proposed the restructuring of the language at a Texas Board of Education meeting that meets periodically to review course titles, descriptions and learning outcomes. All DAAC course names now reinforce use of person-centered strengths-based language. Students entering these classes saw the new course titles change on September 1, 2022.
“I think the last time the courses were reviewed was in 2014, Rosing said. “The committee consists of about 5 or 6 instructors nominated by their school and then selected to sit on the committee.”
Stigmatizing language includes an attribute, behavior or condition that is socially discrediting. This language centers around the idea that the words we use to describe groups who face substance use challenges can have a negative impact on how they see themselves and may also affect how behavioral health providers, caregivers and organizations see them in turn.
“For example, course 1304 Pharmacology of Addiction is now called 1304 Pharmacology of Substance Use Disorders,” Rosing said, which reflects the specific diagnosis in the DSM-V.
So why is this important not only for those we serve but for students studying in the field?
“Stigma about people with SUD might include inaccurate or unfounded thoughts like they are dangerous, incapable of managing treatment, or at fault for their condition,” The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes on their Words Matter page, focused on learning more about what stigma is and how to change specific terms in your practice.
Instead of calling someone an ‘alcoholic’ or saying they have an ‘addiction’ which has negative connotations and places a label on the person or group, a person-centered approach uses the phrase ‘a person who uses drugs’ or “a person with a substance use disorder diagnosis.’ By reframing the narrative with non-judgmental language, practitioners can focus on being strength-based and supporting the people they serve.
Students currently in Addiction Studies courses learn this valuable lesson during their pre-service education, allowing them to be one step ahead in their careers upon graduating, an ideal that the SSW ATTC Educational Consortium was built upon.
Rosing noted that when we use language that supports the person while identifying the problem such as substance use disorder, it can help in how we perceive, treat, and relate to those we are helping.
“Being part of the ATTC I am aware of how language changes and the desire to change the conversation from addiction to substance use disorders,” Rosing said. “Once I started the conversation, the committee embraced the changes in language, and everyone started to contribute. Once a consensus is made by the committee for course title, description, and learning outcomes, it gets written up and then submitted for change.”
Studies from SAMSHA and ATTC networks across the country have noted that various factors such as stereotypes (who do we think of when we picture people who use drugs), media (images and slang words) have influenced the types of stigma experienced by people with substance use disorders.
Nationally, there is a growing movement to focus on people-first language across various causes. Popular organizations are following suit in advocating for harm reduction approaches in health care and training those in the field to overcome stigma. The SAFE Project, founded in 2017, provides resources for people who have mental health and/or substance use challenges and created a #NoShame toolkit for 2023 to encourage destigmatizing language for those receiving care we work with.
The national ATTC network around the country has provided essential training in reducing stigma in addiction and marginalized groups through webinars. Also, SAMHSA has provided a Combined Language Guide to showcase the shift in terminology across aging, LGBTQ+, African American, and mental illness communities.
For Rosing, changing the course titles and curricula language was a necessary step to providing a more considerate and constructive learning environment for substance use disorder counselors and students.
“We don’t want to look at those we serve through jaded eyes, we actually want to view the people we work with,” Rosing stated.
Rosing served as department chair of the Human Service Technology Program at Houston Community College for 15 years and currently serves as faculty. Rosing has been an active member of SSW ATTC for Workforce Issues and Recovery Orientated Systems of Care since 2006 and is the coordinator for Houston Community College as part of the SSW ATTC Educational Consortium.
To locate the changes in a course title or description, you can search on the Workforce Education Course Manual.