Words Can Hurt

Father talking to son

Our Words Influence Others’ Feelings, Attitudes and Beliefs

You can help reduce the stigma of mental health by changing the words you use to describe it. These guidelines from the Stamp out Stigma campaign can help you talk about both mental health concerns and Substance Use Disorders, and the people who experience them:

DON’T... DO... WHY
Use words like “addict,” “alcoholic”, “former addict” or “drunk.” Use words or phrases like: “person with Substance Use Disorder,” “person with alcohol use disorder,” “person in recovery or long-term recovery” or “person who misuses alcohol/engages in unhealthy or hazardous alcohol use.” Use phrases that see the person first, rather than the illness or disorder.
Refer to people as “schizophrenics,” “alcoholics,” “anorexics” or “addicts.” Use phrases like “people with schizophrenia,” “people who have anorexia” or “a person with a Substance Use Disorder.” Using person first language conveys that a person isnot defined by any one trait or condition.
Use descriptions that imply pity, such as “afflicted with,” “suffers from” or “victim of.” Refer to someone as “living with a mental health condition” or “experiencing a mental health condition.” “Suffer” may imply pity. This kind of language victimizes people.
Use a phrase like “committed suicide.” Use “died by suicide,” “killed himself” or “ended her life.” “Committed” frames suicide as a criminal act.
Use words that are negative or judgmental, such as “mental health problem,” to describe a medical condition, or describe a person as “mentally ill.” Use phrases like “mental health issue,” “mental health condition” or “mental illness.” “Problem” has a negative connotation and places judgment on another person’s experience.
Use a word like “relapse” when talking about substance use behaviors. Use phrases like “recurrence of use” or “recurrence of symptoms.” Recurrence of symptoms is common to substance use behaviors and chronic illness in general.

Accept, Don’t Judge People

If you have a friend or a loved one with a mental health condition or Substance Use Disorder, do your best, through your words and actions, to help them feel accepted and loved, not judged. Together, we can fight the stigma of mental health and substance abuse.

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