Person-Centered Language and Recovery: What You Need to Know

February 27, 2019

Despite the positive steps that our society has taken regarding the discussion of mental health and substance use disorders, they continue to be misunderstood and stigmatized. There are many reasons for this but one is related to the language that has long been used to describe behavioral health – mental illness and addiction – and those whom it affects.

Since behavioral health is often portrayed negatively in the media, it isn’t surprising that people with mental health symptoms are often treated poorly and face daily discrimination. Still, this attitude seems short-sighted, considering that one in two people will contend with a mental health issue during his or her lifetime.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only one in four people with mental health symptoms actually believes that others are caring and sympathetic toward someone living with a mental illness. Slightly more than one- quarter of those aged 18 and older have a mental disorder during any given year. Furthermore, adults with common chronic conditions such as diabetes, arthritis, epilepsy, heart disease, and cancer often also experience depression and anxiety, compounding the difficulty of dealing with chronic illness.

Words Reinforce Negative Stereotypes

Unfortunately, many people do not fully appreciate the fact that words have power. Certain words often serve to reinforce negative stereotypes or biases. Negative words and phrases perpetuate stigmas and are detrimental to individuals’ relationships with others. They can contribute to the marginalization and dehumanization of people who are living with mental health issues.

This is evident in the fact that approximately 60 percent of adults with a diagnosed mental illness do not receive any mental health services. A survey published in 2015 by mentalhelp.net found that 98 percent of respondents believe that mental illness is stigmatized while 16 percent believe that the stigma has only increased over the past year. Thirty percent believe that it has decreased.

When choosing the language to talk about behavioral health issues, it is so important that we allow people to choose how they would like to be identified. They may choose to be known as a client, peer, consumer, or patient, but they may also see these words as negative and harmful, instead preferring to be identified as a person in recovery, a person working on recovery, a person receiving services, a survivor, or something else. Regardless of what they choose, it is important to ensure that we use language as a means of empowering others.

Using Language to Reclaim Identity

Due to the attitudes and negativity that has long plagued people living with mental health symptoms, those in the mental health community have worked hard to reclaim their identities. Illness-centered approaches, such as saying that someone is bipolar, can cause people to be identified by their illness rather than as a person with an illness, first and foremost.

You would never think to tell someone living with cancer to stop looking for attention or someone with heart disease to just get over it. So why are we using this type of language when it comes to someone living with a mental illness? How we speak about mental health and the words that we use when referring to people should be no different. You would not say that someone who has cancer is a cancer or that someone with heart disease is a heart disease. People have illnesses and disorders – they do not become their illness or their disorder.

Choice of Words and The Recovery Model

Keeping all of this in mind, at New Vitae Wellness and Recovery, we believe strongly that society should not refer to people as drug addicts, alcoholics, schizophrenics or bulimics. Instead, we should say that they are a person with drug addiction, a person diagnosed with alcohol addiction, a person diagnosed with schizophrenia or a person diagnosed with bulimia.

In much the same way, we should not refer to people as mentally ill but rather as people diagnosed with mental illness. It is even more important that we avoid derogatory words such as crazy, insane and nuts. We also should avoid words with negative connotations and descriptions indicative of pity, such as that a person suffers from or is afflicted with an illness. Instead of saying that someone has committed suicide, which sounds as though they committed a crime, try saying that someone has died by suicide. It sounds far less judgmental and avoids negativity.

Placing people at the center and above all other aspects of their treatment has formed the foundation of what is known as The Recovery Model.  This person-centered approach is so important because it recognizes that every individual should be seen for who they are and not for the mental health condition with which they were diagnosed. An example of this would be, “She is a person diagnosed with bipolar disorder.”

Focusing on the person first encourages their recovery in that it focuses on their strengths and what they are capable of – not what they are perceived to be lacking. Many elements make up an individual’s well-being and personal beliefs. By keeping the focus on the individual, it empowers them to make changes in their life by identifying their goals and developing the skills necessary to achieve them.

What Language Should You Use?

People often wonder how they can help improve the way we talk about mental and behavioral health. Simply by exchanging one word or phrase for another can make a positive impact. Here are some of the words you should try to exchange:

  • Instead of saying “acting out” consider saying that a person disagrees with the recovery team and prefers to use alternate coping strategies.
  • Instead of saying “relapse” consider saying re-occurrence.
  • Instead of saying “denial” consider saying that the person disagrees with the diagnosis.
  • Instead of saying that someone is “hopeless” consider saying that they are unaware of their opportunities.
  • Instead of saying that someone is “helpless” consider saying that they are unaware of their capabilities.
  • Instead of calling things “weaknesses” consider saying that they are barriers to change.
  • Instead of calling someone a “frequent flyer” consider them as someone who takes advantage of services and supports as necessary.
  • Instead of saying that something is “minimizing risk” consider explaining that it is maximizing growth.
  • Instead of saying someone was “discharged to aftercare” consider that they are connected to long-term recovery management.

People should not be labeled as “resistant,” “non-compliant” or “unmotivated.” Instead, we should consider saying that they are not open to, prefer alternative coping strategies, or are not interested in what the system has to offer.

Further examples include:

A case manager, treatment team and front line staff discuss the baseline of a high-functioning substance abuser that is suffering from dangerous behavior.

In this example, the italicized words can have a negative connotation. You should consider swapping words and phrases. Some suggestions include:

  • Instead of saying “case manager” consider saying recovery coach/guide.
  • Instead of saying “treatment team” consider saying recovery team.
  • Instead of saying “front line staff” consider saying support staff providing compassionate care.
  • Instead of saying “baseline” consider saying and describing what a person looks like when they are doing well.
  • Instead of saying “high-functioning” consider saying that a person’s symptoms interfere with their relationship or work habits in the following way…
  • Instead of saying “substance abuser” consider saying person with an addiction to substances.
  • Instead of saying “suffering from” consider saying working to recover from.
  • Instead of saying “dangerous” consider specifying behavior.

A manipulative and entitled patient does not practice self-help, which is why she puts herself and her recovery at risk.

In this example, the italicized words can have a negative connotation. You should consider swapping words and phrases. Some suggestions include:

  • Instead of saying that someone is “manipulative” consider saying that he or she is resourceful.
  • Instead of saying that someone is “entitled” consider saying that they are aware of their rights.
  • Instead of calling it “self-help” consider calling them recovery support groups.
  • Instead of saying that someone puts themselves and their recovery “at risk” consider saying that they have chances to grow and experience new things.

New Vitae = New Life

At New Vitae Wellness and Recovery, we believe that using certain words and phrases can reinforce negative and outdated stereotypes, while choosing different language can empower people in their recovery through empathy. New Vitae Wellness and Recovery is all about promoting and sustaining recovery. Therefore, we work to eliminate the social stigma often associated with behavioral health diagnoses and supports and utilize the Recovery Model in order to encourage self-directed services.

New Vitae Wellness and Recovery customizes its services for each individual by offering three levels of care: Partial Hospitalization, Intensive Outpatient, and Traditional Outpatient services. These services include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, motivational interviewing, relaxation skill building, mindfulness and assertive communication skills training. Additionally, Medication Assisted Treatment is now offered.

New Vitae Wellness and Recovery is licensed by the Pennsylvania Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services as well as the Division of Drug and Alcohol Programs. We are also accredited by The Joint Commission. For more information about the many services that we provide, contact New Vitae Wellness and Recovery by visiting online at www.newvitaewellness.com or calling at 267-424-1705 today.

“I have been living here at Quakertown House for almost 23 years and to me Quakertown House is home, that kind of sums it up.”

- Dave P. (resident)