By Susan Finley, Ed.D., NCC
“A man’s character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation.” –Mark Twain
We’ve all heard the saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But the field of psychology shows us words do matter. An effective way to change the stigma around addiction and mental health is how we talk about it. Proper usage of language and phrasing makes a big difference when it comes to treating those with addiction.
Being an ally to individuals struggling with mental health issues does not mean one has to volunteer, join an organization, or attend rallies to make a difference. The truth is, no matter the extent of an individual’s involvement, one can serve as a mental health advocate simply by changing the way they speak about addiction and alcoholism.
There are effective and ineffective ways to lessen the stigma around addiction. A simple change in how the disorder or diagnosis is phrased when discussing the person affected can have a huge impact on the way the community reacts, as well as whether the individual himself/herself seeks treatment. When discussing mental health issues with coworkers, friends, and family, phrasing and proper use of terminology makes an impression. An example of ineffective language includes labeling someone as “an alcoholic” or “bipolar.” No one says, “that person is cancer,” or “that person is diabetes.” When using language that pair diagnoses directly with a person’s identity, a message is being sent that addiction is representative of whom the person is. More effective phrasing would be, “that person has alcoholism” or “that person has bipolar disorder.” This way, there is an acknowledgment of presence without permanently labeling the person as such.
Having an addiction or alcoholism is not who the person is. It is a symptom of how the person struggles. 12 step programs encourage individuals to label themselves, thus identifying the disease as who they are: “My name is _______ and I am an alcoholic.” This approach is detrimental both to the individual himself/herself, as well as how the outside world sees and reacts to them. Experiencing difficulties with alcoholism or addiction at some point in one’s life does not mean that the person should be labeled as such for the remainder of their life. It is difficult, at times devastating, to be given a diagnosis (an example would be diagnosed with a disease such as cancer or being told you have AIDS). Pairing a disorder with who you are as an individual does not support the process of recovery. Saying “I am an alcoholic,” is like saying “I am AIDS.” A more effective way of handling a diagnosis is to explore the multitude of ways in which the disease/disorder can be treated. This encourages the individual to take initiative, actively participating in their treatment process that ultimately leads to experiencing self-efficacy.
The next time you find yourself labeling a person as “bipolar,” “an alcoholic,” or “a schizophrenic,” make this simple change instead: that person “has bipolar disorder,” “has an addiction/alcoholism,” or “has schizophrenia.” Words do matter, but the way we use them matters equally as much. Set a positive example by first noticing the language and phrasing. Then make the change in your own conversations for a lasting impression on others.
Susan Finley, Ed.D., NCC is an educator, published researcher, and social media consultant for therapists. She is a National Certified Counselor (NCC), Board Certified-TeleMental Health Provider (BC-TMH), and Suicide Prevention Instructor (QPR) under the National Board for Certified Counselors.
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