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What Is Person First Language (and Why Is It Important)?

Language is how we communicate, and it can have a profound impact on each of us. Language can change our perceptions, the way we think, and how we relate to one another. Especially in healthcare, words matter. Our treatment methodology at Laguna Shores Recovery has evolved to reflect this, and we include each individual as an active participant in their own treatment and care. 

Individuals are seen as members of their own healthcare team, and, often in the treatment of substance use disorder, staff and the individual are in a partnership to achieve treatment goals and make continued progress in recovery. At Laguna Shores Recovery, we believe in healing the whole person and delivering the personal attention that an individual needs to achieve their goals, starting a successful path to a life of recovery. 

Defining Person-First Language

Person-first language initially emerged from a movement created by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1992. Person-first language aims to separate the person from the diagnoses or impairments. An example is referring to a group of children as “children with Down syndrome” instead of “Down syndrome children.”

The Office of Disability Rights defines person-first language as putting the person first before the disability and describing what a person has and not who a person is. 

The Purpose of Person-First Language 

Person-first language aims to de-stigmatize individuals instead of promoting biases, devaluing individuals, and focusing only on the diagnosis. Individuals struggling with substance use disorder can often feel stigmatized by inaccurate beliefs and judgments about addiction. 

Using person-first language in healthcare settings in treatment for individuals with substance use disorders can improve the quality of care and perception of the individual seeking treatment. 

Identity First vs. Person-First Language 

Person-first language versus identity-first language varies on the preferences of individuals with disabilities and diagnoses. For example, individuals who are deaf may choose not to embrace the person-first language and prefer identity-first. While person-first language is a step in the right direction, it does vary on the individual and may not be accepted in all circumstances.

Why We Use Person-First Language in SUD

Person-first language is emphasized in treatment for individuals with substance use disorders for many reasons. It allows a partnership to be developed between the clinician and the individual because treatment isn’t solely focused on the addiction but on the person as a whole. When individuals with substance use disorder feel stigmatized, it may reduce the possibility of the individual seeking treatment. 

What to Say and What to Avoid 

When considering person-first language, there are several ways to address individuals with substance use disorders to avoid stigmatization and negative bias. 

Instead of labeling someone as an “addict,” “junkie,” or “user,” these are some common person-first terms to use: 

  • Person with substance use disorder
  • Patient
  • Person in recovery
  • Person who previously used drugs

This simple shift shows a person who has a problem rather than is the problem. When a clinician refers to an individual as a person with substance use disorder versus an addict, it is presented as more of a neutral tone, separating the person from the disorder. 

Preferred Terms for Substance Use

When referring to using substances, these are some common terms a healthcare professional can use to de-stigmatize the relationship to substance use. 

Terms to use: 

  • Substance use disorder
  • Drug addiction
  • Use
  • Misuse

These are preferred terms to use instead of “habit” and “abuse.” 

Why Use Person-First Language in Healthcare 

Person-first language is defined as “care that is respectful of and responsive to individual patient preferences, needs, and values and ensuring that patient values guide all clinical decisions.” Person-centered care in the healthcare system addresses the individual in a holistic approach. 

Understanding Substance Use Disorder 

A substance use disorder occurs when a person’s use of alcohol or another substance can lead to health issues or problems at work, school, or home. There are many causes of substance use disorder, including an individual’s genes, environmental factors, emotional distress, or mental health problems. 

Symptoms of substance use disorder: 

  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Engaging in risks behaviors
  • Developing a higher tolerance
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Constantly seeking the drug

Common warning signs can be: 

  • Shifts in mood
  • Problems concentrating
  • Avoiding friends and family
  • Avoiding social activities

Treatment for substance use disorder can vary depending on the individual’s needs. Treatment can be: 

  • Medicated Assisted Treatment: Medication combined with therapy to reduce withdrawal symptoms
  • Inpatient Rehabilitation: 24/7 medical attention and care for individuals who may need this type of attention
  • Peer Support Groups: Groups like Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous have been shown to help individuals find relief and support by relating to peers’ stories and recovery journeys. It also lessens the feelings of loneliness and isolation for individuals.
  • Counseling: Individuals with substance use disorder have benefited greatly from the value of receiving counseling with the support

Person-first language can be a life-changing tool for an individual seeking treatment for substance use disorder. 

At Laguna Shores Recovery, we are committed to creating a safe and stigma-free space for individuals with substance use disorders. When you come to us for treatment, we are ready to meet your needs and give you a holistic experience that will transcend your expectations of what a sober life can look like. With our highly trained staff and supportive community, you will feel at home and able to focus solely on what is most important your well-being, goals, and recovery. Contact Laguna Shores Recovery at (866) 229-9923 to start your journey.