Vernon, B.C. — Whether you realize it or not, language matters.

It can empower a person to great heights or it can destroy an individual’s self-worth, making already harrowing situations that much more desperate. 

The language we use determines how others perceive a place, a thing or even a person. 

We know that certain language should not be tolerated for its hurtful or even hateful nature; but yet, when the topic of substance use or homelessness comes up, out-dated, negative, stigmatizing-language is still used, often with malicious intent and without regard of what damage it is inevitably causing. 

Negative language towards an individual often amounts to bullying. 

“It hurts being called a bum, or a junkie or an addict,” explains Turning Points Collaborative Society co-executive director Randene Wejr. “Our clients tell us all the time. When these slurs are hurled, it can make a person feel like garbage; like they are less than human. It doesn’t make a person feel worthy of anything better.”

Across North America and Europe, there is a large push to correct the negative, stigmatizing language used when referring to people experiencing homelessness, people who use substances, and, or, people who are living with a mental illness.  

We hear it so many times, so much of what was shameful in experiencing homelessness came from the stigmatizing language often used by the public. 

Jerry 

On a curb in front of a grocery store, sits Jerry. In his hands is a sign that reads, “Very hungry. Please help. God bless.”

Apart from the sign asking for money, Jerry is barely noticeable. 

Still, as a young man walks past Jerry he stops, and with a bite to his words, says, “Bums. You people disgust me. You’re lazy. All you do is beg. Get a job, crack head.” 

The man’s words have their desired effect. Jerry is crushed. He is left feeling worse off than when he first sat down to ask strangers for spare change. 

“In all bullying, there’s intent to harm, a perceived power imbalance and it is repetitive in nature.” — Study on bullying, Penn State University.

 

Sam

Sam patiently waits in line at the pharmacy for her prescription. 

She recently began opioid agonist therapy treatment — doctor prescribed medication that allows Sam to manage her substance use disorder. 

Sam hopes this will lead to recovery. 

While waiting in line for her medication, she overhears the lady in front of her remark to a friend. “I see a lot of junkies in here. They come to get their drugs,” the woman says. “Why should my tax dollars go towards getting them high?”

The remarks cut Sam deeply. 

Sam walks out of the pharmacy without taking her prescription. 

The negative, stigmatizing words have jeopardized her recovery and left 

Sam feeling unworthy of change. 

“Stigmatization contributes to isolation and means people will be less likely to access services. This has a direct, detrimental impact on the health of people who use drugs.” — BC Centre for Disease Control.

April

April walks down the street crying. Her mental distress is visible. 

As tears stream down her face, she lets out a loud primal scream. 

The other pedestrians on the sidewalk scatter, unsure of what April might do next. 

Fingers are pointed and comments are made. “Crazy b*tch,” one man yells. “What the hell is wrong with you? Get out of here,” shouts another woman.

The crowd begins to close in on April. No help is offered. The judgement increases. 

April’s mental distress grows. Her screams are now directed at people.

“Leave me alone,” April screams. 

The crowd continues to judge. 

“She’s totally high.” 

“Call the cops.”

“Nut job.”

Without knowing what caused April’s mental distress, she is ultimately deemed to be less valuable to society by the other pedestrians on the sidewalk.

The police show up. April’s mental health continues to deteriorate. 

“People are afraid of what they can’t control and what they fear becoming. It seems so easy to pick on people who we, as individuals or a society view as ‘less than’. 

People who hold the power, or feel that they do, take out their fears, and often their own personal, unrelated frustrations, on someone they feel superior to. 

This is common with bullies.” — The Homeless Hub

As you can imagine, having words like these repeatedly hurled at you will leave a mark, if not create permanent damage.

“Just because someone is experiencing homelessness, doesn’t mean they aren’t a human being deserving of compassion and respect,” explains Wejr. “Sometimes just the language we use when we talk to marginalized individuals can make a difference in how they see themselves.” 

It is one of our most important and powerful tools if we want to stop bullying and end the stigmatization of vulnerable individuals.

Language Matters: 

  1. People-first language. This means referring to a person before describing his or her behaviour or condition. This is important because it acknowledges that a person’s condition, illness or behaviour is not that person’s defining characteristic. “Person with a cocaine-use disorder” instead of “cocaine user” or “addict.”
  2. Use language that reflects the medical nature of substance use disorders. There are a multitude of factors contributing to drug addiction, ranging from personal factors to social, environmental and political ones. Avoid terms that reinforce a belief that addiction is a failure of morals or personality, rather than a medical issue. “Addictive disease” and “substance use disorder” instead of “abuser” or “junkie.”
  3. Use language that promotes recovery. This means healthcare professionals should use language that conveys optimism and supports recovery, and respects the person’s autonomy. “Opted not to” and “not in agreement with the treatment plan” instead of “unmotivated” or “non-compliant.”
  4. Avoid slang and idioms. Slang terms and idioms have negative connotations and a significant level of stigma attached to them. While slang and idioms are rarely used in professional literature, they are also important to avoid when speaking to other colleagues or healthcare professionals. “Positive” or “negative” when referring to drug tests, instead of “dirty” or “clean.” — Toward the Heart

List of corrected terms: 

https://www.shatterproof.org/about-addiction/stigma/stigma-reducing-language

The More You Know:

Don’t use: “Mental illness” as an aggregate term Instead, use: “Mental illnesses” or “A mental illness”

Don’t use: “Afflicted by mental illness”, “suffers from mental illness” or “is a victim of mental illness” Instead, use: “Living with a mental illness” 

Don’t use: “Mentally ill person” or “Person who is mentally ill” Instead, use: “Person with a mental illness” or “Person living with a mental health issue”

Don’t use: “Schizophrenic; psychotic/disturbed/crazy” Instead, use: “Person living with schizophrenia”; “Person experiencing psychosis, disorientation or hallucination”

Don’t use: “Normal behaviour” Instead, use: “Usual behaviour” or “typical behaviour”

Don’t use: “Substance abuse” Instead, use: “Substance use disorder”

Don’t use: “Committed suicide” Instead, use: “Died by suicide” or “lost by suicide”

The Health Partners


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