Recovery Month and the Use of Proper Terminology

This month marks the 27th year of National Recovery Month, an observance held each September to educate Americans about how substance use treatment and mental health services can enable those with a mental and/or substance use disorder to live a healthy and rewarding life. Over the years, National Recovery Month has inspired millions of people to raise awareness about mental and/or substance use disorders, share their stories of recovery and encourage others who are still in need of services and support.

Each year for Recovery Month, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration sponsors the Recovery Month Annual Event Awards, which recognizes community events that are rated the highest in accordance with the values of Recovery Month. Applicants are asked to indicate whether their events were substance use-focused, mental health-focused or both.

Mental health conditions can sometimes be forgotten when it comes to the journey of recovery. When someone tells you they have a friend or family member in recovery, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Perhaps recovery from an addiction to alcohol, illegal substances or prescription drugs. While recovery from addiction issues is important, the road to recovery from mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder are just as vital.

As communicators, we know that using respectful, responsible and non-offensive terminology is crucial when interacting with various audiences. In conveying messages, trust can be immediately lost if certain words are used mistakenly to characterize particular segments of the population. Regarding recovery from mental illnesses, there are some nuances pertaining to language that are significant for the recovery community. Here are a few tips for discussing mental health responsibly:

  • Use people-first language, such as “a person living with depression,” rather than “a depressed person.”
  • Discuss suicide by saying “died by suicide,” rather than “committed” or “completed” suicide, which may be interpreted as putting the blame on the person.
  • Use “bias,” “prejudice” or “discrimination” when referring to a person experiencing unfair conditions as a result of having a mental health condition instead of using the word “stigma.”
  • Use “mental health conditions,” not “mental health problems” or “mental health issues,” which have a negative connotation.
  • Refer to recovery as an ongoing journey, instead of a destination. This shows respect for the fact that an individual must deal with recovery in the long-term rather than expecting a short-term solution.

Vanguard’s Brenda Foster also wrote a blog post earlier this year about words that can harm, particularly when discussing mental health. It is imperative that we as communicators learn the appropriate terminology for each audience that we’re working with. Certain populations have worked hard to educate the public and counter misperceptions about their respective groups. We should strive to always use proper terminology to avoid offensive diction and inappropriate characterizations of these segments of the population.