What is Person-First Language?

Person-first language is a way of communicating that respects individuals with issues such as drug and alcohol misuse, mental health disorders, or disabilities. The goal of using person-first language is to recognize the person first rather than their disorder by avoiding terms that can be deemed derogatory. 

Words can hold a lot of meaning, and simply changing the way we use certain phrases, even when they mean the exact same thing, can make a difference in how people perceive it.

For example, if you are addressing an individual with drug addiction, rather than using the term “junkie,” a better alternative you can use is “person with a substance use disorder.” Not only are words like “junkie” and “addict” demeaning to the person, but it also makes it seem like the condition is permanently affecting this individual and that he or she cannot change. 

We all know that if someone really wants to become substance-free, they will work hard to accomplish that goal. This is something that a person can undoubtedly change about themselves.

Individuals that are Seeking Addiction Treatment

Also, if an individual is currently receiving treatment for his or her substance misuse, it’s best to refer to that individual as a “patient.” It lets that person know that they are working on becoming substance-free, whereas the demeaning terms are doing nothing other than reminding that person that they have an addiction. 

Using person-first language is also how you can show respect and let an individual know that you see them for who they are as a person, not their condition.

We live in a world where labels can make or break a person. Diagnoses are no different. Fortunately, most physical healthcare providers don’t allow diagnoses to define their patients. They see a diagnosis as a small piece of the individual who is learning to survive, despite a medical battle.  

Unfortunately, we allow addiction to define approximately 21.5 million Americans each day. Society views those diagnosed with cancer, diabetes, asthma, and other medical conditions as unfortunate victims of a disease that requires treatment, support, and assistance.

Why is Person-First Language Important?

A person’s mental health disorder or disability does not define who they are, so why would we want to address someone in that way? This is one of the many reasons why it’s important to start using person-centered language, especially in a therapy or rehabilitation setting. There is more to someone than his or her mental health disorder, and using person-first language allows you to put the individual first rather than his or her disorder. 

A person could have many wonderful skills and talents, but addressing him or her as an addict or junkie makes that negative attribute the center of attention rather than their positive ones. It makes a person feel bad knowing that they have a lot to offer but are only seen as a negative part of society.

We live in a world where people are constantly getting labeled. Sometimes those labels are good, but other times they can be quite bad. Labeling individuals has a powerful effect because it’s the first impression you get of that person. Nobody ever likes making a terrible first impression, and the way you address someone can either make them look like a bad person or a wonderful person.

How to Address an Alcoholic

For example, when people think of an alcoholic, the worst things come to mind automatically, and nobody wants anything to do with that alcoholic because they know how dangerous they can become. If you wanted to use person-first language, you would address that person as “someone experiencing an alcohol problem.” Yes, it means the same thing, but the term “alcoholic” has more of a negative connotation to it. 

When you see someone as a person who is experiencing an alcohol problem, you begin to empathize with them. You don’t see them as a danger to society, but rather as someone who has a problem and needs help. That is why words matter and why using person-first language is important.

Conversely, those who abuse illicit substances are at times viewed as offenders, moral failures, and agents of their illness. The medical community utilizes scientifically proven medications and lifesaving treatments to stabilize and manage those with chronic physical health conditions. 

On the other hand, the idea of medication to treat addiction, or Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT), is oftentimes viewed by society as a crutch or replacing one addiction for another. Medications for other chronic physical health conditions are not referred to as MAT, although they are used to manage physical conditions along with healthy lifestyle changes and behavioral modification the same way MAT is utilized in addiction treatment. Medications to treat substance use disorders such as Buprenorphine, Naltrexone, and Methadone Maintenance should not require a different label.

How Using Person-First Language Can Make a Difference

Using person-first language may seem like a small thing, but it can make a huge difference in how a person sees themselves. Especially in an addiction therapy setting, putting the person before their addiction is key to helping them recover. It shows that you care about them as a person and that you want them to get better. It lets the person receiving treatment know that they are not their addiction. They are a person who happens to have a substance misuse disorder that they are working on fixing. This individual needs to believe that they matter.

Stigma and discrimination, simply stated, are the reasons for the behavioral health disparity. The solution, although a bit more complex, begins with simple changes. To reduce the stigma of substance use disorders, we must support the implementation of clinical language that promotes improved treatment and access to care. 

To improve care, we must use medically accurate, person-first language that focuses on the individual and not the disorder. We must begin to describe those with the disease of addiction as individuals with substance use disorders. To change treatment outcomes, we must alter the language of treatment. In short, language matters.

Shifts in the Industry

Fortunately, on an industry level, the change has already begun. In 2013 the DSM-V announced a shift in terminology by emphasizing the use of the term “substance use disorder” as opposed to previously accepted terms such as abuse and dependence, which illicit pejorative biases. 

Following suit, the Office of National Drug Policy (ONDCP) published Changing the Language of Addiction, to align with the DSM-V. As treatment providers, there is a wealth of information available to train and educate staff. Of significant note is the ADDICTIONary, a comprehensive glossary of key terms concerning addiction and recovery developed by Facing Addiction and the Recovery Research Institute (RRI). Check it out here.

How to Begin Using Person-Centered Language

The first step to properly using person-first language is to understand the purpose and meaning of it. Communicating this way begins with empathy. 

If you have something distinct about yourself, let’s say you are taller than average, you wouldn’t want to be addressed as “the tall person” all the time. It would make you feel bad that you’re only known for being tall rather than all the other great traits you have to offer.

People with disabilities, mental health disorders, and addiction problems feel the same way. Also, if all they’re known for is their disorder, it could make it harder for them to want to recover because that’s all they will see themselves as if you keep addressing them as an addict. 

Simply changing the way you speak about someone can make a big difference in how they see themselves. As the saying goes, treat others how you want to be treated. That also goes for not calling people terms that would make you feel bad if someone said it to you.

So, where do individuals start? Avoiding terms such as “drug addict” and “alcoholic” can assist in reducing bias. Person first language means using the words “person with substance use disorder” instead of “addict,” “abstinent” instead of “clean” and “positive test result” instead of “dirty.” Identifying addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disorder and not a moral failure is a great start. 

Supporting individuals that seek MAT as a means of treating their chronic brain disorder will make a difference. Addiction is a medical condition, and we must start treating people with substance use disorders with the same dignity that the medical community offers their other patients.

Quality treatment is available, and recovery is possible. Adopting unbiased person-first language and utilizing appropriate clinical terms can reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with substance use disorders. As a result, we can increase the likelihood that individuals with substance use disorders will seek and receive equitable treatment. If we change the words, we can change the conversation.

Footprints to Recovery Addiction Treatment

Battling a drug addiction is tough, but we have a team of professionals who will work hard to help you overcome it. Here at Footprints to Recovery, we have a simple approach to drug and alcohol addiction. We listen, and then we meet you where you are at. Do you have any questions about our addiction treatments? We’re more than happy to answer them. Contact us today and start living a better life tomorrow.

Melissa Rocchi, LCPC, ATR

Melissa holds a BA in Art and Psychology from Illinois State University and a MA in Art Therapy and Counseling from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in the State of Illinois as well as a registered art therapist, and has held several executive positions in the Illinois Art Therapy Association.

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