The Importance of Person-First Language in Recovery

The Importance of Person-First Language in Recovery

As a kid, you were probably taught what words were good and which words were bad. Your parents and teachers told you not to call people names and not to curse. Eventually, you grew up, and you made your own opinion about what words were okay to say. Whether you knew it or not, that opinion was probably influenced by what you heard other people saying around you. But what if the words that people often say aren’t really okay? That’s often the case with identity-first language versus person-first language. 

What Is Person-First Language?

To understand person-first language, you have to first understand the concept of stigma. Stigma is a social mark of disgrace associated with certain conditions, ethnicities, identities, or qualities. It portrays that circumstance as harmful, gross, undesirable, or bad in some way. Usually, the assumptions made by stigmatization are untrue or don’t show the whole picture. That’s part of why stigma is dangerous; because it misinforms. But how is stigma spread?

Humans are social creatures, and we convey much of our social information through speech. As author Rita Mae Brown once wrote, “Language exerts a hidden power.” The words we use shape the way we see the world and vice versa. Stigma can spread through our language and change the way we see the people around us. For example, the term “junkie” conjures up certain images and feelings in the mind. You probably imagine someone on the street, malnourished and mean-looking. It might give you a feeling of anxiety or fear because the person seems dangerous. Most often, a “junkie” is someone society looks down on and sees as lesser than others. This is an example of an identity-first language.

But what if, instead of “junkie,” you think of a “person with substance use disorder (SUD)”? It probably doesn’t bring up the same feelings and thoughts. This is an example of person-first language. When you say “junkie,” you draw no distinction between the person and their condition. Instead of reducing the person to nothing more than their disease, you think of them as someone with a condition. You put the person first. This will help you think of them as human, someone you can respect and have empathy for. That’s how the stigma stops spreading. 

How to Practice Using Person-First Language

When everyone around you uses certain words, it’s normal for you to learn that those are okay. Breaking the habit can be hard, but once you know better, you should do better. The key to changing your vocabulary is actively practicing the use of person-first language. When you’re talking about addiction and people with SUD, think before you speak. Consider how you would like to be referred to if you were in their shoes. 

To help you start replacing your stigmatizing words, here’s a list of harmful terms and the person-first terms that you can say instead.

  • Addict = Person with SUD
  • Junkie = Person in active use
  • Alcoholic = Person with alcohol use disorder
  • Former addict = Person in recovery or long-term recovery
  • Abuse = Misuse 
  • Dirty (in reference to having drugs in their system) = Testing positive

You’ll probably make mistakes at first and slip into your old habits. That’s okay! What’s important is that you keep trying. Eventually, you’ll replace your old vocabulary and person-first language will come naturally. 

What’s the Impact?

You may be asking yourself if this is really necessary. The short answer is yes! Person-first language is an integral component of successful recovery. In recovery from SUD, it’s easy for patients to have low self-esteem and a bad self-image. There’s often a lot of internalized self-hatred from being stigmatized by society. If a person with SUD doesn’t believe that they are worthy of receiving treatment and getting better, they won’t.

At Laguna Shores Recovery Center, we believe that everyone is deserving of a healthy, happy life. We want to help our patients believe that about themselves. To do that, we only use person-first language. But this goes far beyond political correctness or semantics. We believe that it is not only the right thing to do but also a truer representation of a significant percentage of our society. Laguna Shores Recovery Center is a safe environment built on pillars of respect, dignity, and compassion. Person-first language helps us keep it that way by stopping the spread of stigma. 

This concept stretches far beyond the addiction conversation as well. Marginalized groups everywhere should be treated with dignity, respect, and humanity. In the past, it may have been socially acceptable to say, “They’re crippled,” but we’ve grown as a society since then. It doesn’t take much more effort to say, “They have a physical disability” instead. To learn more compassionate terms to add to your vocabulary, check out the National Institutes of Health’s guide on destigmatizing language. From one human being to another, we owe each other that much. 

Laguna Shores is located in Orange County, California, and is one of many dual diagnosis rehab facilities in southern Cali. We offer intensive outpatient and residential programs for people struggling with SUD. Reaching out for help can be scary, but when you’re with us, you’re always a person first. Our staff is passionate about empathetic, person-centered care that leaves no room for stigma at our facilities. If you’ve faced discrimination or stigmatization in the past, we understand and are ready to help you process the damage that that does. But getting better starts with asking for help. If you or someone you know is facing SUD, give Laguna Shores Recovery Center a call at (866) 774-1532.