When talking about someone who has an addiction or mental illness, you’ve probably heard statements like “He’s an addict” or “She is so bipolar”. People making these statements often mean no harm. However, how we phrase things can have unintended consequences. At Cumberland Heights, we use person-first language to reinforce an important message: each human being is more than their diagnosis.
What Is Person-First Language?
Person-first language is often referenced when talking about someone with a disability, mental illness or addiction. Utilizing this type of language means you identify the person independent of a diagnosis. For example, instead of saying a person is an addict, you would say that person has an addiction. This separates them from the diagnosis they have rather than making it part of their identity.
Why Language Is Important
As humans, it’s our nature to want to categorize people. We frequently describe ourselves based on some of these characteristics. Whether it’s education, job title, religion or marital status, we frequently place ourselves and others in boxes. While this may not seem negative, defining someone by identities that are susceptible to change can be harmful. If a person were to lose their job or relationship, they may be left wondering who they are outside of this. Choosing to identify someone outside of these can help create an environment where change is both accepted and encouraged.
For a person with a disability or other diagnosis, identity is an important aspect of treatment and recovery. They are living with this illness and likely want to exist outside of it at times. When we choose to categorize someone based on their challenges, we take away their ability to self-identify. We wouldn’t look at a person with high blood pressure and say they are high blood pressure. So why do we do this with addiction and mental illness?
Person-First Language and Addiction
If you are in recovery or know someone who is, you are probably familiar with AA or NA meetings and the introductions there. Those in these programs will stand and say “Hi, my name is ______, and I’m an addict”. This may cause confusion when thinking about person-first language, but there is a key difference here. These statements are made by someone who is struggling with an addiction, and the first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem. For most, it’s important to recognize that their addiction is something they have to deal with. It’s tempting for those with an addiction to separate themselves from their substance use disorder and put the issue on another source. By saying “I am an addict”, they are owning their contribution to this disease.
In the same way, everyone should be able to choose how they identify themselves. Someone with autism spectrum disorder might say they are autistic. They have the right to identify in that way, but we shouldn’t give a person an identity without their consent. No matter what the disease, disorder or characteristic is, we should default to using language that emphasizes who a person is before anything else.
Finding Identity in Addiction Treatment
The challenge of addiction treatment is often learning to live life outside of this disease. Throughout recovery, we work with clients to find an identity outside of substance use. Developing healthy coping skills and relationships helps solidify who they are as individuals and emphasizes their strengths.
At Cumberland Heights, we help all of our clients both accept their addictions and develop confidence in who they are. Through group therapy and individual counseling, clients work to identify triggers and establish healthy alternatives to addictive behaviors. Whether you are looking for residential or outpatient support, our multiple locations and programs around the Nashville area can help. If you’d like to learn more about our treatment options, contact us today.