Words Matter How to Talk about Mental Health and Addiction

Words Matter – How to Talk About Mental Health and Addiction

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If you’ve ever had the feeling that you’re not sure what to say or which words to choose when you talk to your loved one who is struggling with a mental illness or a substance abuse disorder, then you intuitively understand the power of words. The words someone uses toward us can build us up or tear us down. The words you use make a huge difference in the overall outcome. Especially in the cases of mental health and addiction, where the person may be especially sensitive or already facing overwhelming stigma, uncertainty, and negativity, you will want to choose your words carefully.

What Not To Say

Many people with mental illness or addiction face stigma from their conditions in their daily lives. Stigma can prevent people from seeking help, drive others away at a time when the mentally ill or addicted person most needs support, and even affect the quality of care received by healthcare providers.[1]

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Emotionally balanced and un-addicted people may not fully understand this stigma. They may expect others to shrug off negative comments and let insults roll off their backs. But this can be incredibly difficult when constant negativity and judgment undermine the tools needed to develop a healthy coping ability.

Try to avoid using terms such as:  [1,2]

  • Junkie
  • Addict
  • Drunk
  • Drug abuser
  • Crazy

Flaws are Not Identity

You may hear people addicted to drugs or alcohol using these terms themselves and think they are acceptable for you to use. However, sometimes it’s easier for us to cope among peers by identifying our perceived flaws out loud. Hearing those perceived flaws from someone in a relative position of authority, sobriety, or status can actually reinforce the mental illness and emotional troubles that make it hard to gain a foothold in life without turning to substances. [2] In trying to help, you could unintentionally be solidifying the person’s view of themselves as being beyond help or someone who needs drugs to survive.

That’s because the brain forms emotional and behavioral responses to certain words and phrases. These responses are often out of the person’s control. If a person hears, repeatedly, from many different sources, that they are “crazy” or an “addict,” they will start to believe those things are true. Those aspects will take on larger and larger proportions in that person’s self-identity until one day it’s hard to see themselves as anything other than a crazy addict. That only makes it harder to want to seek treatment and fully believe that treatment can be successful. [2] These beliefs form a negative self-fulfilling prophecy.

Positive Words To Use Instead When Talking about Mental Health and Addiction

Before a person can get better, they need to believe they can get better. That’s why you’ll (hopefully) never hear a therapist degrading or insulting a patient. Instead, they’ll choose to use language that makes the patient feel more powerful.

In terms of mental health and addiction, the power comes from separating the disorder from the person’s identity. If the patient understands that their problem is not who they are but only one treatable aspect of their lives, they will feel much more motivated to ask for help. In turn, their confidence that the issue can be treated often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in the positive direction.

When in doubt, take a phrase and reframe it more positively, separating the problem from the person’s identity. Instead of “junkie,” for example, you could say “someone struggling with an addiction.”

Other positive phrases to use include: [1,2]

  • Person in recovery
  • Individual seeking treatment
  • Someone with alcohol use disorder
  • A person with a substance use disorder

These terms are unwieldy compared to their identity-based counterparts. But, remember that going the extra mile to surround your loved one with supportive language can only help and never hurt. As children, we form our beliefs of who we are based on the reactions of our parents and feedback we get from our peers. This doesn’t change in adulthood as much as you might expect. When you actively participate in your loved one’s recovery by helping them reform their views of themselves positively, the minor inconvenience of altering your word choice starts to seem insignificant.

Need More Help? Contact a Mental Health and Addiction Specialist

The topics of mental illness and addiction are not easy to talk about, even during the best of times. You can always contact Desert Cove Recovery with any questions about approaching or talking to your loved one.

Desert Cove Recovery offers family support and counseling sessions for patients’ loved ones. When everyone goes through the process together, stays aligned toward the same goals, and learns the same helpful tools for success, the family provides an invaluable support network for people beginning the recovery journey.



[1] https://nida.nih.gov/nidamed-medical-health-professionals/health-professions-education/words-matter-terms-to-use-avoid-when-talking-about-addiction

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/happiness-is-state-mind/202201/stigmatizing-language-in-mental-health-and-addiction