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Babies exposed to drugs are clinically diagnosed as drug dependent – Why terminology matters

Anderson County, TN, February 2019 – When pregnant women take prescription medications or other drugs, their baby may be born drug-dependent. This is not the same as addiction. Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain characterized by drug-seeking behavior and the inability to stop using a drug. Babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome or NAS experience withdrawal due to drug exposure while in the womb and are clinically diagnosed as drug dependent. This is an important distinction. Dependence is characterized by the physical effects on the body. A baby born with NAS is not exhibiting drug-seeking behavior but instead may suffer from physical withdrawal symptoms such as fever, seizures, blotchy skin, continuous crying, rapid breathing, respiratory problems and extreme sensitivity to sounds and light.

Addiction? Dependence? Why does it matter what language we use? The answer: Stigma.

The concept of stigma describes the powerful, negative perceptions commonly associated with substance use and dependence. Stigma is a public health issue and can be particularly harmful to pregnant mothers with substance use disorder. People with substance use disorders are often viewed by the public as weak-willed, although evidence shows that they are as likely to adhere to treatment as people with other chronic medical conditions, such as hypertension or diabetes. Substance use disorder is among the most stigmatized conditions in the US and around the world, and in the case of babies born with NAS, pregnant mothers who experience stigma are less likely to seek proper treatment, further compounding the effects of drug use on their unborn child.

How can we help? A simple step to reducing stigma and knocking down these barriers is by using person-first language, which emphasizes the person, not the disorder, in an attempt to avoid marginalization. This type of language suggests that a person has a problem that can be addressed, rather than implying that the person themselves is the problem. We urge you to use the term born drug dependent instead of born addicted or drug-addicted babies in media and when discussing this topic in general.

ASAP of Anderson is a coalition of community members dedicated to preventing and reducing substance misuse among youth and adults in Anderson County. For more information, contact ASAP of Anderson at 865-457-3007 or visit www.ASAPofAnderson.org/compassion.  Follow ASAPofAnderson on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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