“Drug-Seeking”: Health Professional Labelling of Patients

Drug-seeking: a label often applied to people with pain disorders or mental illness

“Drug-seeking.” “Med-seeking.” They’re labels with very negative connotations, but health care providers often use them to refer to patients taking medications with the potential for abuse. Yet isn’t anyone going to see their doctor for a prescription seeking out drugs? Why is seeking medications okay in some instances but not in others?

If “medication compliance” is expected, perhaps what the “drug-seeking” label really represents is stigmatized attitudes towards patients with certain conditions, like chronic pain or mental illness.


The opioid overdose epidemic is a good example of how judgment cloaked in good intentions can deprive people of much-needed medication. Yes, there are serious issues with people becoming addicted to opioids and some people dying from overdoses. Because of this, there’s tremendous pressure on doctors to decrease opioid dosages and avoid giving them to people as much as possible.

Unfortunately, this means that people who were able to manage their pain with opioids are facing reductions in their dosages. That means less pain control. People trying to stay on the dose that had stabilized them are likely to be labelled as drug-seeking. If someone had to take a few extra to get them through a bad flare, good luck trying to get their prescription refilled early.

Benzos and stimulants

When it comes to mental illness, stimulants and benzodiazepines tend to be most commonly linked to the drug-seeking label. Sure, they can be abused, and that’s a problem. However, it doesn’t mean that people taking those medications therapeutically should be treated as second-class citizens.

A pharmacy that I went to in the past started acting like I was sketchy when I started taking the stimulant Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine). All of a sudden, they were asking a bunch of questions and requiring photo ID every time I picked up my meds. I decided screw that and switched to a different pharmacy. My current pharmacy is better, but they still handle the Dexedrine differently from my other meds. I can’t request a refill be processed using their automated phone system; for that particular medication, I have to speak to someone directly. when I pick it up, they make me wait to speak to a pharmacist before they’ll give it to me.

The Netflix documentary Take Your Pills feeds into the drug-seeking narrative regarding stimulants. This post about stigma and Take Your Pills looks at some of the problematic messaging the film contains.

Why the attitude?

This isn’t the only stigmatized label that gets attached to patients, especially patients who have a mental illness. “Attention-seeking” is another common one that’s a twist on help-seeking, which is encouraged.

I think at least some of this comes from the cover-your-ass attitude that’s so prevalent in health care. Health care providers don’t want it coming back on them that a patient is doing something “wrong,” so they try to make sure they’re not giving anyone the opportunity. So much for patient-centred care; CYA wins out more often than not.

We deserve better than being judged by the medications we take and the conditions we have.  We could use more compassion and less cover-your-ass.

Book cover: A Brief History of Stigma by Ashley L. Peterson

My latest book, A Brief History of Stigma, looks at the nature of stigma, the contexts in which it occurs, and how to challenge it most effectively.

You can find it on Amazon and Google Play.

There’s more on stigma on Mental Health @ Home’s Stop the Stigma page.

11 thoughts on ““Drug-Seeking”: Health Professional Labelling of Patients”

  1. So spot on, and it’s quite worrying the way the whole ‘opioid crisis’ is going with people finding their medications under threat. I think it’s great to bring more awareness about what different drugs do, to get reviews, to make sure they’re working well enough and are best suited to you etc. But, the patient’s needs have to come first and if they need pain medications, they should get exactly what they require. I agree there’s some cover-their-asses going on. The stigma around these medications is only getting worse with the media coverage suggesting over-use of prescription pain meds and then in comes medication shaming and labels of being a medication-seeker. There’s a distinct difference between taking prescription pills when you don’t have pain, and taking them because you’re in agony and need them to better manage your day to day life. Nicely said, Ashley.
    Caz xx

    1. It’s been such a knee-jerk response, and people with chronic pain shouldn’t be paying the price for some doctors’ poor prescribing practices for acute pain.

  2. Couldn’t have said it better myself. It is a fact that I struggle with substance abuse, and the chemicals in my brain have been altered as a result. My options to living a substance-free life are minuscule, therefore, I receive prescribed medication that targets the areas that are damaged. I am fortunate to not be an opiate addict if there is such fortune. The epidemic that it has become does affect those who live with chronic pain. The efforts toward reducing those addicted increases overdoses and cuts others out completely. I think too much leniency is given to medical professionals where addictive medication is concerned. It is insane what people around here are prescribed and lethal when combined. It doesn’t make sense. Those people are drug-seeking but the fact they walk out with the three prescriptions they do baffles me.

  3. Johnzelle Anderson

    Great post! I warn my clients about the addictiveness of some of their prescriptions and check in to ensure proper use. From my experience in the inpatient setting, I have seen some very real cases of med-seeking. My doctor has me come in for blood tests and follow-ups for my benzo prescription. I’m fine with that, given that benzos being sold on the street is rampant in my city.

  4. omg this is so true!! so well written 💗 I remember when I had some talks with a social worker a few years ago and told her I took Valium from my mother because she use that. They told me it’s addictive and blabla. I still have benzo prescribed for anxiety and will use it whenever I need it, mostly when I feel really anxious. It feels like we are treated as kids when we know what to do. If it makes us feel better it’s important

  5. Would that a gun owner in America had to go through half the crap those of us on stimulants have to to get meds to keep us functional. I *might* be more open to gun ownership ever if it took three photo ids and an address verification each time you fired one and you could only obtain one a minimum of every thirty days with side-eyed glances…

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