HRC Column: Language matters

Paula Belcher
HRC Column

Our words matter. As a child, my parents cautioned me to be thoughtful about the things I say, because “Once it’s out there, you can’t take it back, and sometimes an apology isn’t enough to undo the harm.”

This advice came long before social media, so it is even more pertinent in a world where the things we say and do can have a broader audience and no shelf life. As a child, I was also influenced by the advice of Thumper from “Bambi.”

“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”

Oh Thumper, you are so wise. I also remember a childhood lesson from Sunday School: “Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them” (Ephesians 4:29).

Through funding made available through Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Rural Communities Opioid Program (RCORP) grants, Memorial Regional Health and its Rural Alliance Addressing Substance Use Disorder — Colorado (RAS-Col) community consortium partners are initiating a “Language Matters” campaign to help raise awareness about the importance of our words when we talk about mental health and substance use disorder.

Our words can be helpful or hurtful; they can raise awareness or they can promote stigma. Slight changes in the words we use or the way we phrase a thought or idea can have a significant impact on the person to whom we’re speaking, or on someone overhearing a conversation.

As part of the campaign, RAS-Col has developed posters in both English and Spanish that provide ideas on how to rethink and rephrase the words we use. Social media posts will also be used to help raise awareness and offer education related to mental health and substance use disorder.

When it comes to mental health, some ideas to consider to make your words matter are:

• Instead of “suffering from mental illness,” say “experiencing mental illness.”
• Instead of “crazy, insane or disturbed,” say “person experiencing a mental health disorder.”
• Instead of “depressed,” say “person experiencing depression.”
• Instead of “retarded,” say “has an intellectual or developmental disability.”
• Instead of “committed suicide,” say “died by suicide.”

When it comes to substance use disorder, some ideas to consider to make your words matter are:

• Instead of “drug addict, junkie or user,” say “person with substance use disorder.”
• Instead of “clean,” say “in recovery.”
• Instead of “dirty,” say “currently using substances”
• Instead of “substance abuse,” say “person with an alcohol use disorder.”
• Instead of “former addict,” say “person in recovery.”

If someone is considering seeking for treatment, an unkind word can direct them down a path toward contemplating suicide or using substances to alleviate their emotional and physical pain. Alternatively, a kind word can direct someone to ask for help in finding a treatment provider who meets their needs.

Physical wounds heal; but unkind words can fester in the heart and mind long after, never to be forgotten. Be thoughtful with what you say, and know that your words matter.

For more information on MRH and RAS-Col’s Language Matters campaign, visit Contact MRH’s Population Health department at 970-826-8010 to obtain posters to post at your business or organization.

For more information on MRH and RAS-Col’s Language Matters campaign, visit or scan this QR code.
Courtesy photo

Paula Belcher is the director of Population Health Management for Memorial Regional Health. MRH is county-owned 25-bed Critical Access Hospital and Rural Health Center, with specialty health care services and a rehabilitation center, located in and focused on caring for people living in Northwest Colorado.

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