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Addiction and Mental Health: Words (Still) Matter

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A decade ago, William White helped explain how commonly used terms like “addict” and “abuse” helped reinforce stigma against people with addictions. Today, while the addiction field has increasingly shunned the word “addict,” “abuse” remains an unfortunately common moderator when talking about the disease of addiction. That includes the very name of the nation’s lead agency on addiction issues: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

SAMHSA administrator Pamela Hyde reopened the discussion on use of language in an article in the March/April 2010 issue of SAMHSA News, where she asked readers to submit their suggestions and feedback on certain terms commonly used to describe addiction and mental illness.

“One thing everyone agrees on, including me, is that nearly every term we use is problematic,” Hyde wrote. “We need to find a way to talk about prevention, health, disorders, disease, addiction, illness, and recovery so that we can address the issues and not argue about what we mean. We definitely need to use ’people first’ language regardless of how we describe people with symptoms, illnesses, addictions, or diseases and how we label their status.”

Hyde’s commentary sparked more than 150 comments, including many from Join Together readers. Due to the enthusiastic response, SAMHSA has left the comments box open for a while longer, so feel free to email dialogue@samhsa.gov — and you might want to suggest to the administrator that SAMHSA is long overdue for a name change while you’re at it!

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