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Why Is Person-First Language Important in Addiction Treatment?

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Words matter. In fact, many people would argue that words can hurt people longer and harder than almost anything else. Oftentimes, words become a fulfilling prophecy. Thus, words sometimes cause people to behave like the type of people that others say that they are. For example, using harsh language like “alcoholics” or “druggies” to describe people with substance use problems can make these individuals feel as if their addictions are their entire identity and that they are thus, worthless. This could deter individuals who suffer from addiction from getting the help they need. That’s why the use of person first language is so important.  

What is Person First Language?

Person first language is a form of communication that consciously recognizes people as individuals rather than their disorders or disabilities. For example, instead of calling someone an alcoholic, you would say that that individual is a person who suffers from alcohol problems. 

The purpose of using person first language is to not demean those with disorders and disabilities. This means not reducing individuals with disorders or disabilities to their conditions.   

Why Is Person First Language Important?

Person first language is important because it shows those that suffer from addiction that they are not just their addictions. It does this by using language that separates the individual from the addiction.

It Removes the Stigma of Addiction

Person First Language

Person first language is also important because it removes the stigma that is often associated with certain disorders. For example, individuals who suffer from addiction often have to combat the stigma that they are dangerous and irresponsible.

Dealing with this stigma could cause people to avoid helping those that suffer from addiction. It could also cause people to actively treat those who suffer from addiction poorly. In a way, stigmas act as a form of discrimination.

It Lets People Know That They Are More Than Just Their Addictions

Another reason why the use of person first language is so important is that it lets people who suffer from addiction know that they’re more than their addictions. This is because, as we briefly mentioned at the beginning of this article, words matter. The reason that words matter is that they are very powerful. 

The power of words is evident in how they can curb a person’s behavior. Words can even change the way people view things. That’s why continuously using terms that aren’t in person first language such as “alcoholic” or even “addict” to describe individuals can make those that suffer from addiction feel as if that is their entire identity. 

Over time, individuals with substance use problems may start to feel as if there is no hope for them. This could ultimately lead individuals with addictions to not seek out help. 

It Helps Prevent Relapse

Continuing to hear language that isn’t person first to describe individuals with addictions could even negatively affect those in recovery. This is because it will make those that are already in recovery feel that their identities are in their addictions. 

If individuals in recovery continue to feel this way, it could cause them to more easily relapse. This, in turn, means that the use of person first language can actually help prevent relapse.

It Helps Prevent People in Recovery From Continuing to Live in Shame

Continuously hearing language that isn’t person first could cause people in recovery to continue to live in shame. This could hinder the well-being and mental health of individuals in recovery. Thus, the best thing for the health and well-being of people in recovery is to use person first language when discussing people that suffer from addiction. 

The Positive Long-Term Impact of Continued Use of Person First Language

There are countless positive long-term effects that could develop if everyone consciously started using person first language. Some of these long-term positive effects are described below.

The Removal of the Addiction Stigma

One obvious long-term effect of the use of person first language is the removal of the addiction stigma. The addiction stigma of danger and irresponsibility that’s associated with people that suffer from addiction. 

With the removal of the addiction stigma, individuals with addictions can feel more comfortable being vulnerable about their conditions. This heightened comfortability will help people with addictions seek out the help that they need. 

More Empathy About Addiction in the Workplace

Long-term use of person first language for addiction may even help people receive more empathy about their addictions at work. This is a huge positive long-term effect of person first language. This is because many people that have current or previous addiction issues fear that if they admit their struggles with addiction, they will lose their jobs or lose respect from their coworkers. 

Such fear of workplace judgment could even deter people from using their workplace healthcare plans to receive addiction treatment. This is not good, as anything that can help people with substance use problems pay for addiction treatment is beneficial.  

More Empathy for Those That Suffer from Addiction in General

The workplace isn’t the only place that tends to lack empathy when it comes to people that suffer from addiction. In fact, society, in general, lacks empathy when it comes to people that suffer from addiction. That’s part of the reason why using person first language to alter the way that society talks about individuals that suffer from addiction is vital. 

Examples of Addiction-Related Person First Language

Person First Language

There are many examples of common person first language and common non-person first language. For example, a common non-person first language term is an “alcoholic.”

This non-person first term makes alcoholism the entire identity of an individual. Instead of speaking in a way that does that, use person first language that separates alcoholism from the individual’s identity. Examples of person first language terms include “individual with alcohol problems” or “ person who suffers from alcohol addiction.” 

Other examples of addiction-related person first language terms include:

  • Person with a substance use disorder
  • Individual with a drug addiction
  • Person who misuses substances
  • Patient
  • Individuals in addiction recovery
  • Person who uses drugs
  • A person who misuses drugs
  • Baby born to a mother who used drugs while pregnant
  • Person or baby with signs of withdrawal
  • Person that suffers from an addiction

Examples of Addiction-Related Language That Isn’t Person-First

Addiction-related language that isn’t person-first is the type of language that makes addiction the identity of a person. Thus, such addiction-related language contributes to the negative stigma that’s associated with people that suffer from addiction. Below are examples of language terms that aren’t person first, and thus should not be used. 

  • Alcoholic
  • Addict
  • User
  • Drug abuser
  • Substance user/abuser
  • Junkie
  • Druggie
  • Drunk
  • Former addict
  • Reformed addict
  • Addicted individual 
  • Baby addict
  • Addicted person/people

Person First Language Shifts in the Addiction Treatment Industry

The addiction treatment industry has made progress in the use of person first language instead of non-person first language. In fact, there have been massive shifts in addiction treatment that lean towards more use of person first language. For example, in 2013, the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders (DSM-V) announced that the term “substance use disorder” should be emphasized more when talking about addiction treatment. 

The DSM-V even said that people shouldn’t use previous addiction-related terms that aren’t person first such as “abuse” and “dependence.”  This is due to the fact that such non-person first terms contribute to the negative stigmas that surround addiction. 

Even the Office of National Drug Policy (ONDP) published Changing the Language of Addiction to align with the DSM-V. That way, more and more people that enter the addiction treatment industry will use person first language. 

Even organizations like Facing Addiction and the Recovery Research Institute (RRI) are promoting the use of person first language. They are doing so in their official ADDICTIONary. The official ADDICTIONary contains a glossary of addiction and recovery related key terms that everyone should know. 

Receive Compassionate Addiction Treatment at New Directions for Women

New Directions for Women is a supportive treatment center made just for women, their families, and their children. This is because although our treatment center is gender-specific, we are also family-centered. Therefore, single mothers who can’t leave their children while in treatment can bring their children to live with them while they are receiving inpatient treatment with us. 

At New Directions for Women, our clinical motto is “Love, Kindness, and Compassion in All Things.” Thus, we make sure that all of our staff members are considerate of all of our patients and their needs at all times. That’s also why we make a conscious effort to communicate with our patients in a way that lets them know that they are not their addictions. Hence, the passion towards using person first language.

To further show that we believe that our patients can overcome their addictions and be great, we invest in them. We do this by providing them with a wide variety of inpatient, outpatient, and aftercare addiction treatment, and therapy. 

By providing our patients with the highest quality addiction treatment and therapy, we are setting them up for long-term sobriety. The fact that we offer aftercare treatment services such as intensive sober living and aftercare therapy at our treatment center goes to show even more how much we are invested in the long-term sobriety of our patients. 

Here at New Directions for Women, we encourage all of our patients to consider a minimum of 30 days of treatment, although we strongly advise receiving at least 90 days of treatment. To learn more about New Directions for Women and the different addiction treatment and therapy programs and services that we offer, contact us today! We would love to help you achieve sobriety. 



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