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This vs. That: Important Distinctions in Behavioral Health Terminology

Words matter. It’s important to use the right terminology when communicating about behavioral health topics to avoid contributing to the harmful stigma that still exists. Using supportive, person-first language can make the difference in people seeking and receiving services, resources, and support. Overcoming barriers to behavioral health care starts with each of us and the words we use.

The push for person-first language came in the 1970s as part of the “People First” movement and now it’s seen as best practice, “which makes sense given that people don’t often define themselves by one aspect of their personhood. When we put the person first, rather than a label, we have a chance to see the person as being multi-faceted. It’s also important to remember that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach as some people do want to be recognized by a particular part of their identity i.e. ‘autistic person’ versus ‘person with autism.’  Bottom line: use person first language until you know to do otherwise for a particular person,” says Jenna Farmer-Brackett, Clinical Manager at Centerstone. Here are a few examples of person-centered language:

Substance and Alcohol Use

There are a number of terms that are used to refer to persons with substance or alcohol use concerns.  Words like “alcoholic” and “addict” carry deeply problematic messages with emotional meaning, and for some, these and other labels can create barriers that keep people from seeking help out of fear of how they’ll be treated or perceived by loved ones, professionals, and their community. Instead, by using person first language like “person living with addiction” it creates a more hopeful outlook. It’s also important to note that some groups like AA and NA use language like, “I am an addict” or “I am an alcoholic” which can be how some of the members of those group prefer to be recognized.

When we talk about substance use concerns or substance use disorders, we may also be interacting with drug screening results. It often feels like talking about drug screening in terms of “clean” and “dirty” is so commonplace that it seems impossible to change. When we know better, we should do better. So, making an effort to simply describe the outcome of the drug screen as being either “positive for substance x” or “negative for substance z” we contribute to supporting those that are working towards or maintaining their recovery. Using language like “clean” and “dirty” perpetuates negative perceptions, not only impacting how professionals interact with those with substance use concerns, but also how the person with substance use concerns sees themselves.


This is another area where harmful language is so commonplace that shifting how we talk about suicide requires a conscious effort. For example, saying “committed suicide” has inherent negative connotations because of other ways it’s used elsewhere in language, namely with phrases like, “committed a crime.” Farmer-Brackett, says “it’s important to use language like ‘died by suicide’ as it communicates reality in a neutral, matte-of-fact manner. The more we get into the habit of using such language, the more opportunities to open doors for folks seeking help as we’re removing barriers created by stigma.”

Mental Health

Casually throwing out labels like “psycho,” “bipolar,” or “OCD” when describing a person or their behavior can not only be harmful to the person, but also those around them as it communicates a message about what it must mean to have these types of mental health concerns, and often it’s a very negative, detrimental message. According to Farmer-Brackett, “if we’re invested in supporting people, we need to recognize how what we say can make an impact, so let’s choose to make a good one.”

When communicating about behavioral health, it is important to remember these distinctions in language. “Often, outdated language identifies the person by a very limited scope of their being,” says Farmer-Brackett, “and whittling them down to a label strips them of their humanity.”

If you are experiencing a mental health concern or substance use disorder, Centerstone is available to meet you where you are for support, resources, and treatment. Contact us to learn more about our services at centerstone.org.

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