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SAMHSA’s Award-Winning Newsletter
March/April 2010, Volume 18, Number 2 

View From the Administrator: What’s in a Term? Considering Language in Our Field

Do you ever think about what you say when someone asks you to describe SAMHSA’s work or to describe our field?

Do you ever use the words mental health, addictions, substance abuse, prevention, behavioral health, or substance use disorders? Were you ever asked to explain why you use the words you use to describe our field or SAMHSA’s work?

photo of Pamela S. Hyde, SAMHSA Administrator

Pamela S. Hyde, J.D., SAMHSA Administrator

Since arriving at SAMHSA, I have been asked to explain or stop using certain words. Obviously, people are listening closely to find out SAMHSA’s priorities and how I will lead.

Click here to see some of the terms I’ve heard about so far. Do they sound familiar to you?

What We Agree On

One thing everyone agrees on, including me, is that nearly every term we use is problematic. We need to find a way to talk about prevention, health, disorders, disease, addiction, illness, and recovery so that we can address the issues and not argue about what we mean. We definitely need to use “people first” language regardless of how we describe people with symptoms, illnesses, addictions, or diseases and how we label their status.

No Favorites

To clear the air, I have no favorite term or terms. At times in my professional life, I led the charge on “people first” language, and I worked with other advocates to change the words “patient” and “client” to “consumer” when that seemed cutting edge. I stood with individuals who wanted to be called addicts and with persons who just wanted to be called Joe or Jane.

I worked with others to embrace the journey of recovery and the many individualized pathways that journey takes. I argued against the notion that simple behavior change could solve all this; that our field is the only place in which behavior out of the norm is what leads to treatment and services more than an individual’s need. I also called people on their inappropriate use of language such as referring to a policy as “schizophrenic” or a person as a “lush.” And I will continue to do so.

What Really Matters

I know language matters. However, what really matters is that we not get distracted, not fight among ourselves, and not make assumptions about motives or beliefs based on the current language we use. We need to engage in the discussion, but not write one another off when we do not agree. We need to ensure we are respectful of all people, whether they are pro-12 step, anti-psychiatry, service providers, or service recipients. It is what we have in common, not what we may disagree on, that makes us strong as a field.

Let’s have a discussion about terms we use. Let’s try to agree on terms we could use and terms we should absolutely not let anyone get away with using about our field or the people we serve on their road to recovery.

We need to communicate well together and with others, so we need to understand together “what’s in a term.”

Click here to see the list of terms.

Image of laptop receiving email

Let’s talk . . . Send your comments

Let’s have a discussion about the terms we use. Let’s try to agree on terms we could use and terms we should absolutely not use.

Your comments and suggestions are critical as we move this conversation forward. In addition, how can we engage others about this without being disrespectful or making assumptions about bad intentions?

Send comments to We will provide some feedback about what you think in a future edition of SAMHSA News. By communicating well together and with others, we will understand together “what’s in a term.”

  Cover Story & Related Articles  
Take Action in Your Community

Take Action in Your Community

Three new campaigns bring powerful prevention messages to communities.

  From the Administrator  
Pamela S. Hyde, J.D.

Considering Language in Our Field

Do you use certain terms to describe our field? See terms.

  More on Underage Drinking  
Sober Truth on Underage Drinking

Sober Truth on Underage Drinking

The STOP program is making a difference. Read about grantees in Ohio, Connecticut, and Wisconsin.

Town Hall Meetings Continue To Expand

Nearly 1,800 communities across the Nation recently met to discuss underage drinking.

State Estimates on Underage Drinking

State by state, the numbers differ on children and alcohol use.

  Women & Substance Abuse  
Treatment Improvement Protocol 51

Treatment Improvement Protocol 51

Gender makes a difference. TIP 51 can help providers offer women effective, up-to-date treatment.

Pregnant Teen Admissions

Pregnant Teen Admissions

Comparing data from 1992 and 2007 on admission rates.

  Treatment Updates  
Uninsured Workers: Recent Data

Uninsured Workers: Data

Who needs treatment for substance abuse?

Free Treatment Available

Some facilities offer substance abuse treatment at no charge or a sliding scale fee.

Opioid Treatment Programs: Two Reports

Opioid Treatment Programs: Two Reports

Methadone maintenance, buprenorphine maintenance. What are the similarities and differences among OTPs?

  Evidence-Based Practices  
Evidence-Based Practices KITs

Evidence-Based Practices KITs

The Knowledge Information Transformation (KIT) series offers new KITs.

Fiscal Year 2011 Budget

Fiscal Year 2011 Budget

The Agency outlines a budget request totaling $3.7 billion.

More on the Budget . . .

Established programs, new initiatives, and SAMHSA’s Budget Authority by Activity and the Agency’s Congressional Justification.

  Grants Updates  
Promoting Mental Health Recovery

Promoting Mental Health

Five behavioral health care provider associations recently received funding.

  Media & Messages  
Art & Children’s Mental Health

Art & Children’s Mental Health

Every day is Children’s Mental Health Day: “My Feelings Are a Work of Art.”

1-800-273-TALK Is the Lifeline

1-800-273-TALK Is the Lifeline

Share the Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s number on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

Minds on the Edge

Minds on the Edge

Facing mental illness is the subject of a PBS program.

  Recovery Month  
Flyers Available

Flyers Available

For 2010 celebrations, the flyers are available in print and online.

Inhalant Use & Respiratory Conditions

Inhalant Use & Respiratory Conditions

Thousands of children age 12 to 17 with pneumonia, bronchitis, and asthma used inhalants.


Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration – 1 Choke Cherry Road – Rockville, MD 20857
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