Words are among the most powerful tools for communication that human beings have at their disposal. They can be used to heal, affirm motivate, inform, build capacity and consensus, inspire, praise, and educate. Unwittingly, and often with no intent at malice, they can be used to minimize, marginalize, pathologize, stigmatize and oppress.
The fields of alcohol and other drug treatment and mental health services collectively referred to as behavioral health have long used words to diagnose and label individuals and families by their (respective) challenges. This is taught in colleges and universities as the way in which we identify people and the challenges for which they present with care. However, this labeling has a tendency to elicit pity or sympathy, create oppressive situations, cast people and families in a negative light and/or in “victim” roles and perpetuate negative stereotypes.
Labeling people and families by their challenges (e.g. homeless, alcoholic, addict, schizophrenic, diabetic etc.) also tends to dehumanize, disenfranchise and reduce the person or family to being that challenge, instead of someone living with, in recovery from or experiencing symptoms of it.
The field of behavioral health services is historically paternalistic in its approach to working with people and families. Social healing words (strengths-based language) help the field eliminate that paternalism and move away from doing things to and for people and families to doing things with them.
Learning a new language, especially for adults, is often challenging. Many people in the behavioral health field were trained to label the people and families with whom they work. Insurance companies pay for diagnoses rather than, wellness and healing. Thankfully, large systems employing vast numbers of people have begun to reevaluate such ideologies as illness in the workforce costs companies billions of dollars each year in lost productivity. The art is in recognizing the use of words that are grounded in the strengths and capacities of people and families. This recognition promotes whole health (physical, emotional,social spiritual), improved outcomes and healing.
The following work represents years of thinking affirmatively about people, families and communities and how best to support their journeys to wellness. Some believe that moving away from deficit language devalues their work and diminishes their roles as experts who have spent years getting their educations and working in their fields. Conversely others feel relief that they do not always need to be the expert. One person working in a community-based program in DC related that he found his work less taxing because he was stepping out of the way to promote people deciding their own courses of care. We believe there is little cost associated with changing language rather the benefits are immeasurable in terms of better outcomes and more collaborative relationships with people receiving services, their families and their communities.
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