Words have great power.
They can heal, uplift, and inspire but also harm, marginalize, and stigmatize.
So, what is safe language?
Safe language means using words and phrases that do not contribute to stigmatization or shame. For example, instead of “committed suicide,” which implies a criminal act, we promote using the term “died by suicide,” which is more person-centered and respectful.
SAMHSA recommends using “person-first” language, emphasizing the person rather than the disorder or behavior when discussing issues, individuals, or groups. For example, instead of saying “addict,” SAMHSA suggests using “person with a substance use disorder.” This language shift is intended to reduce stigma and promote a more compassionate, person-centered approach to treatment. “Person-first” language means placing the person before the condition they are experiencing. For instance, instead of saying “a suicidal person,” we can say “a person experiencing suicidal ideation.” This humanizes the person and focuses on their individuality rather than reducing them to a single label.
As professionals, we are responsible for using language that promotes respect, empathy, and dignity for all individuals, particularly those struggling with mental health and suicidal ideation. Language in professional fields changes over time for various reasons, including the evolution of language itself, changes in social norms and attitudes, and advancements in technology and research. As our understanding of the world and our experiences evolve, so should our language.
Consider the shift from using the term “addict” in recovery and substance use fields to describe individuals with substance use disorders. A few years ago, many didn’t pause before labeling someone as an “addict.” Today we see pushback and resistance to this word when discussing an individual. However, there are many who still self-identify with this term.
This language change has been supported by a number of addiction and mental health organizations, including the American Society of Addiction Medicine and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), because they understand the implications labeling has on perpetuating stigma and lessening the likelihood of positively impacting substance use issues.
The term “Asperger’s Syndrome” is no longer used as a diagnostic category in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which was published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 2013. Instead, the diagnosis has been subsumed under the broader category of “autism spectrum disorder” (ASD) (APA, 2013).
The change was made because research has shown that the boundaries between Asperger’s Syndrome and other forms of autism are not clear and that there is a high degree of overlap between the two conditions (McPartland, Reichow, & Volkmar, 2012). Additionally, the term “Asperger’s Syndrome” has been associated with controversy due to its historical connection with Hans Asperger, who was a member of the Nazi party and may have participated in the euthanasia of disabled children (Sheffer, 2018).
Many individuals continue to use outdated language to self-identify due to personal preference or a lack of understanding of the potential harm and stigma associated with certain terms. For example, some individuals who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community may use terms like “homosexual” because they grew up with this term. They may not be aware of its negative connotations or prefer to identify with it. Similarly, some individuals with disabilities may use outdated terms like “crippled” or “retarded” because they have not been exposed to more respectful language or have not had the opportunity to learn about the impact of their words on those around them.
It is important to recognize and respect an individual’s self-identification, even if it includes terms that may be considered outdated or stigmatizing. However, it is also important to educate about and promote person-first language, especially when acting in a professional capacity. When addressing someone who calls themselves an “addict,” professionals should use person-first language and avoid labeling or stigmatizing language. For example, instead of saying, “John is an addict,” one can say, “John is a person in recovery from addiction.” This acknowledges the individual first and emphasizes their journey toward recovery while not labeling them or assuming how they prefer to self-identify.
Language is constantly evolving, and what was once considered an acceptable term may now be seen as offensive or stigmatizing. As individuals, we can all play a role in promoting respectful and inclusive language by educating ourselves and others and choosing our words carefully.
We need to understand that safe language is not just about avoiding harmful words; it’s also about actively promoting positive and empowering messages. One way to do this is by using language that conveys connection and resilience. For example, instead of saying, “There’s no way out,” we can say, “You are not alone, and we will work together to find a way forward.”
In addition to safe language, we must be mindful of safe messaging. Safe messaging means using language and communication techniques that do not stigmatize, increase the risk of suicide, or contribute to marginalization or contagion. This can include avoiding graphic or sensationalized descriptions of suicide in the media and providing resources for support and help-seeking. It can also mean being selective of the content we share to ensure it accurately depicts the spectrum of experiences and perspectives. These strategies are especially vital online and across social media platforms where messages can spread quickly to a wide audience.
So, what can we do to promote safe messaging and safe language?
One practical step is to educate ourselves and others about the impact of language and communication in our fields. We can advocate for using safe language and messaging in our workplaces and communities.
We can also model safe language and messaging in our own interactions with the public, colleagues, and friends. By using language that promotes empathy, dignity, and help-seeking, we can create a culture of safety and support for those struggling with mental health challenges.
Words have power, and we are responsible for using that power for good.
Promoting safe language and messaging can help reduce stigma, increase help-seeking, and ultimately save lives.
Educate yourself and others, advocate for change, and model safe language and messaging in your daily interactions.
Let’s work together to create a world where everyone feels seen, heard, and empowered.
American Psychological Association. (2021). Language and stigma: A guide for mental health professionals. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/pi/disability/resources/publications/language-stigma-guide.
APA. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Publishing.
McPartland, J. C., Reichow, B., & Volkmar, F. R. (2012). Autism spectrum disorders. The Lancet, 379(9826), 945-956.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2019). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Sheffer, J. (2018). The Nazi history of Asperger’s syndrome. Spectrum. Retrieved from https://www.spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/the-nazi-history-of-aspergers-syndrome/