Language is powerful — especially when talking about addiction, mental health, or disabilities. Stigmatizing language perpetuates negative perceptions, while “person-first” language focuses on the person, not the disorder.
Almost every Pennsylvanian has been affected by the opioid crisis and substance use disorder. We have an obligation to come together and support individuals through their journey to recovery. One way that we can do this is realizing that the words we use matter. Even subtle changes to our vocabulary can have a huge impact on ending stigma and ultimately give an individual who is suffering the courage to seek help.
Mental illness affects one in five Pennsylvanians, but only half will seek treatment. Mental health is not always visible, and this invisibility can make people feel isolated and unable to share their experience or seek help. However, that silence can make it more difficult to speak out against stigma and prevents people from realizing the better life that is possible. People must understand that they are not alone, and their experiences are valid. Empathy, support, and open conversation are a critical part of supporting our loved ones and addressing stigma around mental health.
Individuals with disabilities also face stigmatizing language use that can be demeaning. It’s important when choosing the words we use to not let a disability define a person, or allow them to be seen as unequal to individuals who are able-bodied.
What is Stigma?
The term is used in association with elements such as labeling, stereotyping, separation, status loss, and discrimination co-occurring in a power situation which allows these components to unfold.
Why Ending Stigma Matters
When individuals feel they will face stigma, they are less likely to disclose mental illness or substance use to providers, which can impede connections to services and support. Individuals also face a lower quality of care and discrimination in jobs, housing, and insurance coverage.
Reducing stigma can help people living with a substance use disorder or behavioral health condition know that they are not alone, resources and help are available, and they are not limited or defined by a mental health condition or substance use disorder.
Here are some resources:
- The AP Style Guide added an entry on addiction in 2017.
- The AP Style Guide added an entry on mental illness in 2013.
- The Carter Center Journalism Resource Guide on Behavioral Health covers topics including considering the relevance of mental illness and substance use to the story, sources, and language.
- Under Director Michael Botticelli, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) issued a memo, “Changing the Language of Addiction,” in 2017 with guidance on language use.
- Addictionary produced by the Recovery Research Institute.
- National Center on Disability and Journalism’s Disability Language Style Guide