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In the past decade, there has been a major cultural shift toward openness about the subject of mental health. Although there are still some groups and individuals who consider mental health to be a taboo topic, dialogue about mental illness is becoming easier and more common.

Following this cultural shift, language has become increasingly important. The fact that we’re talking about mental illness isn’t enough; we have to be aware of how we talk about mental illness. For those challenged with mental and physical conditions, it is important to adopt a person-first approach to emphasize the dignity and respect due to all people despite the struggles they might face.

Through addiction and recovery, it is important that we adopt person-first language. This means separating the individual from the condition by the wording we use. Identifying the person first means we are taking a person-centered approach, rather than an illness-centered approach. 

What is person-first language?

According to the Office of Disability Rights, person-first language recognizes an individual before a disability, and describes the challenges a person faces, rather than who he or she is. This change in phrasing applies to a wide range of conditions and disabilities. For example, you may have heard “my brother has autism” rather than “my brother is autistic” or the word “handicapped” replaced with “has a disability.”

This person-first language applies to both physical and mental conditions, and should also be used to describe people’s experiences with addiction.

How to do it

Person-centered language always puts the person first and also identifies not just the illness, but a struggle with the illness (except in the case of a physical disability or chronic condition, like diabetes). It’s most easily understood through examples.

  • Where we would previously say “addict,” we now would say, “a person who struggles with addiction”
  • Where we would previously say “she’s bipolar,” we now would say, “she is challenged by bipolar disorder”
  • Where we would previously say “my disabled friend,” we now would say, “my friend who has a disability”
  • For an example of a medical condition: rather than “my diabetic friend,” say “my friend who has diabetes”
  • Where we would previously say “mentally ill cousin,” we now would say “my cousin who struggles with mental illness”

Why person-first language is important

According to Mental Health America, person-first language is empowering and is a strengths-based approach to addressing mental health concerns. Illness-centered language is often derogatory and can be fraught with bias and invite discrimination. Negative language can reinforce a person’s own negative self-perceptions, serving to reduce the effectiveness of treatment.

By adopting person-centered language, we divorce a person from his or her symptoms. A person is not bipolar, a person struggles with bipolar disorder. A person is not an addict, a person struggles with addiction. This shows that mental health treatment is not just meant to put a bandaid over symptoms. Treatment is about helping a person to set goals and achieve a satisfying and happy life. Identifying personhood first helps to encourage that perspective. 

Person-first language also gives a person agency over his or her condition. “A person who struggles with addiction” seems to have much more freedom and control than “an addicted person.”

How to speak with sensitivity when discussing addiction

Talking about mental health or addiction can feel like walking on thin ice. Often, we make the mistake of staying silent to avoid any mistakes or confrontation and miss out on important discussion. None of us are experts on person-first language, and political correctness in language seems to change day-by-day.

Learning how to put individuals first in conversation takes time. Take heart and keep trying, and person-first communication will improve and become more natural. The individuals you converse with will feel respected if they know that you are putting in effort instead of resigning yourself to maintaining the same habits. The goal is not perfection, but progress.

Facing addiction is a difficult time in any person’s life. When someone you know is struggling daily to escape drug and alcohol use, affirming someone’s personhood can make a world of difference. If you’re nervous about adjusting to person-first language, share about your intent and your desire to uphold that person’s worth in your language and actions, even if you don’t say the right words all the time.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, reach out to Real Recovery for help today. You can expect professional help that uses a person-first approach and emphasizes the dignity of each person, through sober living facilities that help you rediscover freedom through recovery. Embrace the care you deserve when you call (855) 363-7325 today.