It's All In The Approach: Effectively And Compassionately Shifting Language Around Mental Health and Addiction

Over my career in the mental health and addiction services field, I have seen multiple shifts in the language deemed most helpful and most harmful in any given moment. Most notably, just over a decade of service to this field has borne witness to jumps from the most helpful word being client, to then consumer, to then person receiving services, to then person in recovery – the latter of which would be forever ‘acronymized’ as “PIR” – to then simply individual or person to label those our services are received by.

As somebody who has observed these changes in language, changes that ultimately label me as well since I am a former addiction service recipient and current mental health service recipient, I have also observed the power contained in the delivery approach when it comes to correcting those who aren’t “up to speed” with the latest language shift.

For sure, there is tremendous power in language. Many a book, article and research study have been written on this subject. Also, when it comes to oppressed, marginalized and stigmatized populations, the language we use to describe them has even more power. People living with mental health or substance misuse challenges certainly fall into the categories of oppressed, marginalized and stigmatized groups of people. To that end, the way we talk about or describe people living with mental health or substance misuse challenges is a critical piece of shifting public perception and internalized ways of thinking about oneself that ultimately shape how we view, address, disclose, support, and seek or provide services. Ultimately and without a doubt, words can help or harm, heal or hurt.

When it comes to people living with substance use related challenges, the best academic and professional thinking of today points to a dire need to move away from words such as “addict,” “alcoholic,” “clean,” “dirty,” “substance abuser,” and “drug/alcohol abuse.” There is even an Addiction-ary that has been published the Recovery Research Institute to provide guidance on this matter, a tremendous resource that further offers a much needed call for unity around the language we use.

While I am a staunch believer in the power of language and the urgent need for unity around person-first, non-stigmatizing language, I am also a believer in the collective need for us to approach the task of bringing people along and up to speed in a way that unites rather than divides.

Typically, most of us do not react well to feeling shamed, attacked or made “wrong”, particularly when it is for something we did not know that we didn’t know. We all travel along through life attached to these funny little things called egos, parts of us that have developed with all we have learned about how to view and describe our inner and outer worlds, and nothing is a call to the egos defense structure perking up than a perceived attack on its way of thinking about and viewing the world.

With recognizing what is at play in the task of moving people away from what the language they have been taught to use and the only language they have known, it is imperative that we approach this dialogue from a place of understanding, compassion, patience, respect, empathy and bridge-building rather than attacking, shaming or wronging people. Although those of us who understand the importance of shifting language around mental health and substance misuse must do our due diligence to bring people along whenever and wherever possible, it is critical that we do this in a way that unites rather than divides, that brings people along rather than pushes them further away. It is crucial that we deliver this message in a digestible form for those we are seeking to enlighten and transform. Anything other than that will only further polarize the divide and lead to people hunkering even more deeply down into what they know.

At the end of the day, if we want to see this latest shift in language to that which all the best thinking and science tells us to be most helpful and least harmful, we must take a close, honest and thorough look at our approach. We must ask ourselves questions such as: “is the way I am approaching this coming from a place of compassion and understanding or anger and disdain?,” “is the way I am approaching this easy for the other person to digest?” and “is the way I am approaching this going to lead to unity or division?” It will only be through practicing what we preach and meeting people where they are at that we will bring people along. It will only be through checking ourselves and our approach that we will ever achieve the so direly needed unity we seek around language in this realm. For me, that makes taking a close look at my approach to the dialogue around language all the more well worth doing so. I hope you will find the same to be true for you.

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