Tips for Using Person First Language

If someone obsessively cleans surfaces or constantly organizes their pencils to a T, you might say they’re “so OCD.” However, this person might actually be suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. By saying this, you’re implying that OCD defines this person’s life. In reality, this person is more than their mental health disorder. This is where person first language can be a better option. 

It will take time and effort to get used to using person first language, but it’ll be worth it. Learn more about person first language and how it can help eradicate the stigma of addiction.

What is Person First Language?

Alternatives to Person First Language

Person first language (PFL), also known as people-first language, is a type of communication that reflects respect and knowledge for people with disabilities. This involves choosing words that place attention on the “person first” before their disability. For instance, if you have bipolar disorder, someone might say that you “are bipolar.” The person first way to address this would be to say that you “have bipolar disorder.”

Disability advocates feel that person first language helps parents, service providers, teachers, and therapists that they’re working with understand that people are not their condition. These people have rights, dignity, and feelings, and they have a condition. 

Something to note, though, is that people with disabilities have their own preferences on how to talk about their differences. For instance, some in the deaf community might rather you say, “She’s deaf,” rather than, “she has deafness.” The same goes for the blind community.

Alternatives to Person First Language

Identify-first language is a model that competes with person first language. This method of communication argues that people shouldn’t avoid or shun the term “disabled.” Although those with disabilities are not their condition, they might consider it to be a large part of their lives. For example, you would demonstrate identify-first language when saying someone is “an autistic person” rather than a “person with autism” (the latter would be person first language).

However, practitioners of person first language find identity-first language to be stigmatizing. Talk with your friends struggling with substance use disorder to see which terms they prefer.

What is Stigma?

Alternatives to Person First Language

A stigma is discrimination against a specific place, country, or group of people. It usually comes from unfounded, inaccurate beliefs. The stigma about people with an addiction might come from thoughts that dependence is a moral failure and that they’re at fault for their addiction. This is different from what we know it to be: a treatable disease from which people can recover and lead fulfilling lives.

How Does Stigma Affect People With an Addiction?

People with substance use disorder can be incredibly hurt by the stigma against them. This stigma can make them feel ashamed of their disorder and feel like there’s no hope. It can also lead their friends, family, or even strangers to feel anger or pity toward them. They might not even feel comfortable being around the person. 

This behavior can also affect how health care providers feel about substance use disorders. In turn, it ultimately affects the care they give to patients with addiction. When this happens, someone with an addiction can feel shame and make them unwilling to seek help.

Benefits of Person First Language

Lessens the Stigma of Addiction

Using person first language has nothing but positive outcomes. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. This especially goes for people with substance use disorder. First and foremost, they are people. Although you might refer to people with substance use disorder as “addicts,” this can be inappropriate, prejudicial, and disrespectful. 

When the “war on drugs” began in the 1970s, many stigmatizing and derogatory terms were used to describe people suffering from addiction. Because little was known about the science behind substance use disorders, education went on the back burner. Now that more is known about this chronic disease, the language must change.

Prevents Relapse

What is Person First Language?

The period right after recovery is an important one. During the first year of being drug-free, there will be many temptations that could make someone want to relapse. When someone recovering overhears people talking about “drug addicts,” they could end up thinking about their past and feel ashamed of it. As a result, they might think about turning to drugs and alcohol once again. 

Person first language could prevent relapse since it puts the person first. It separates the person’s substance use disorder from the person, making it easier to stave off cravings. 

Why is Person First Language Important in Addiction Treatment?

As previously mentioned, there are several benefits to using person first language in the recovery community. Going deeper, this language can help people make positive lifestyle changes. When person first language is used, people feel better about themselves and how they can improve their well-being. 

Person first language emphasizes the person rather than their substance use. This way, when they are in the process of quitting, they can separate their substance use from their identity. This makes the addiction treatment process more smooth and effective. 

Several Factors Lead To Addiction

It’s important to understand that there are isn’t just one thing in life that leads to substance use disorder. Several psychological, environmental, cultural, social, economic, and genetic factors can lead to addiction. Substance use disorder isn’t reflective of a person’s character, morals, or behavior. It doesn’t discriminate against income status, gender, or creed; anyone can become a victim of addiction.

Tips for Using Person First Language

When talking to people with substance use disorder, their loved ones, and their coworkers, take a good look at yourself, too. Are there words you use that might be negative in nature? When you think of addiction, do terms like “addict” and “junkie” come to mind? Maybe you sometimes use “addict” as a metaphor, like when you say you’re “addicted” to Netflix. 

The next time you refer or talk to someone struggling with addiction, don’t put focus on the disorder. Instead, put focus on the person.

If you hear someone you know or in the media not using person first language, call them out on it. The best way to spread the use of more positive terms is to educate people about them. You should also tell your story to others if you know someone with an addiction. The more you promote the use of person first language, the closer society will get to eliminating negative terms. 

Terms To Avoid

Below is a helpful table full of terms to avoid as well as which ones you should use.

Instead of…Use…Why…
  • User
  • Addict
  • Substance or drug abuser
  • Alcoholic
  • Drunk
  • Junkie
  • Reformed addict
  • Former addict
  • Person with substance use disorder
  • Patient
  • Person with alcohol use disorder
  • Person who misuses alcohol/engages in hazardous/unhealthy alcohol use
  • Person with opioid use disorder
  • Person who previously used drugs
  • Person in recovery/long-term recovery
This person first language shows that the person “has” a problem, rather than “is” the problem. It avoids any individual blame or negative connotations.
  • Abuse

For prescription medications:

  • Misuse
  • Use other than prescribed

For illegal drugs:

  • Use
  • The legitimate use of prescription medications is limited to use as prescribed. When you take prescription meds outside these parameters, it’s considered misuse.
  • Studies show that the term “abuse” is associated with punishments and negative judgments.
  • Clean

For toxicology results:

  • Testing negative

Non-toxicology purposes:

  • Abstinent from drugs
  • Not currently or actively using drugs
  • Being in recovery or remission
  • Not drinking or taking drugs
  • Substance-free
  • Using the word “clean” might trigger thoughts related to punishment.
  • Use clinically accurate terms the same way they would be used for other medical conditions.
  • Habit

  • Drug habit
  • Drug addiction

  • Substance use disorder
“Habit” could undermine the severity of the disease. It also inaccurately implies that someone could just stop drinking or using drugs.
  • Opioid substitution replacement therapy
  • Medication treatment for OUD
  • Opioid agonist therapy
  • Pharmacotherapy
Medications don’t just “substitute” one drug or substance use disorder for another.
  • Dirty

For toxicology results:

  • Testing positive

For non-toxicology purposes:

  • Person who uses drugs
Saying that a patient is “dirty” could make them lose hope and their self-efficacy for change.

What’s Wrong With the Terms You Need to Avoid?

Terms like “junkie,” “alcoholic,” and “drug abuser” are negative because they don’t make a distinction between the person and their disorder. These terms also imply that addiction is permanent and that change is impossible. Terms like “dirty” and “clean” suggest that someone with substance use disorder is a grimy person and isn’t worthy of help. 

Also, phrases like “drug habit” condemn people with substance use disorder. This suggests that using drugs or alcohol is a “habit” that can be kicked just like biting your nails. Only a little bit of willpower is needed to quit drug use, right? Not so. Addiction is a medical condition and needs to be treated, just like diabetes or cancer. 

Find Help at Harmony Ridge Recovery Center

At Harmony Ridge, we understand that people are more than their substance use disorders. We also know that everyone has a different path to addiction treatment. That’s we tailor recovery plans to each individual who walks through our doors. 

Our staff knows the importance of using person first language. We know how positively this can affect our patients. At our facility in West Virginia, residents can take comfort in our serene and beautiful environment. 

Don’t let addiction take over the rest of your life. Contact us today to get started on your journey to recovery.