Labels for mental health and addiction issues hinder recovery

The words we use to describe someone struggling with mental health or addiction issues hurt, and they get in the way of recovery, and we need to change that, say advocates and care providers.

When we call a person a drug addict, we reduce him to that title, they say, and we fail to see that the state of health is only a part of that person. They are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, hard workers, a friend. They are not their disease.

“Language is ubiquitous and it puts a person in a box,” said Justin Looser, administrative market manager at HCA Healthcare and head of behavioral health at Portsmouth Regional Hospital.

“Imagine if we used those words with other illnesses,” said Rebecca Throop, vice president of community relations for Seacoast Mental Health Center. “She has cancer. He has dementia. This boy has anxiety. … We reduce this person’s identity to a label. We blame the person for the disease.”

Throop said addiction was classified as a disease in 1987, but we still stigmatize people who struggle, making it difficult for them to see their worth and pursue recovery.

“We should say that this person suffers from anxiety,” she said. “Dad has opioid use disorder. John uses cocaine. Susan struggles with alcohol. It’s not their disease.”

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Throop is on a mission to change the language we use when talking about topics that should be treated like any other medical condition. She also works in a field where she can help people on a daily basis and monitor their progress.

“The answer is so simple; we just don’t,” Throop said.

Justin Looser

Looser said they talk a lot about behavioral health about the language used to describe addiction and mental health.

“To say someone is bipolar is a borderline personality demeans people who are struggling to cope,” Looser said. “It takes away the idea that people can get better. We’re talking about whole people, who have whole lives beyond the condition they’re struggling with.”

In a TEDx conference in Portsmouth, Throop spoke about the language of addiction, using “Jane” who has an alcohol-related illness, as the anchor. She describes Jane, 39, as an upper-middle-class professional, board member of the PTA, who has a predisposition to addiction.

Rebecca Troup

“I’m a mother, a daughter, a friend, a wife,” Throop said. “I’m an MBA graduate, runner, ex-Jersey and a big fan of pretzels. I’m 150 things. I’m Jane.”

“I realized one day that I was dying and decided not to leave this legacy to my son,” said Throop, who is recovering from alcohol addiction. “The negative labels, the shaming that people put on people pushed me into isolation. I had to learn to cure my disease, not to ‘be’ my disease. Someone finally said to me: ‘ You have a disease, alcoholism. It’s not all’ Remember the other pieces of you. This change of language saved my life. I was a person, not a negative stereotype. The way we see ourselves open or close possibilities. Anyone close to death is terrified; they don’t want to die. They need to be seen and to be reminded of who they are.”

For Throop, mental health and substance use are completely linked, as the two often go hand in hand. She said women with children are particularly affected.

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“We are in a world of guilt and shame,” she said. “We are judged on our morality and the verb we become. I get it, but that’s not who we are. I drank chardonnay by volume and the mountain I had to climb to stop was huge. Using labels took away my sense of myself from everything but that label. Until I remembered that I was more, that’s all I was.

“I decided to do the TED talk because it was such a personal topic for me,” she said. “We all have to find our way, but the way people around us react can make it easier or harder. I think stigma goes back generations and we have to find a way to change it. We have to make it a moral choice, a conscious choice. It’s a complicated disease and for people to understand it, they have to have experienced it. I think everyone has been affected by addiction, by mental health issues, and we just have to find a better way to see it.”

Susan Onderwyzer, Registered Social Worker and Behavioral Health Manager at Great Bay Mental Health Services, supervises social workers in the emergency department at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital.

Susan Onderwyzer

Onderwyzer said “person”-centered care is at the heart of recovery. She said she had over 40 years in the field and she believes the stigmatization of patients greatly hampers their chances of recovery.

“I talk to patients about it all the time,” she said. “I tell them you’re not bipolar. You have an illness, but it’s not you. We work with the whole person. They have more needs than their illness. They might need housing, financial assistance.. It’s a global problem and until we allocate the necessary resources, we will continue to struggle to reach people. Language? That’s it for people struggling. It’s so they will see each other and we can help make it easier.

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