The Importance of Language in Recovery-Oriented Organizations

-By Jenn Cusick

Language Holds Such Power

Words create worlds. The words we choose to use, and the meanings behind them, continually shape our present and future.

When we were kids we chanted the rhyme, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” However as adults we know this is untrue. Words can profoundly hurt and leave scars that can last years. I can imagine that a lot of us might be still nursing scars from hurtful words we have received over our lifetimes.

The topic of language is something on the radar for PSR focussed organizations committed to serving with recovery-oriented practices.

We always have more to learn.

I know for me this topic has been a big priority for a number of years, and I still find myself saying things that are stuck in an old illness-based paradigm. Life shifts fast, and keeping this topic at the forefront is something recovery-oriented agencies should always do. We always have opportunity for growth!

Supporting Others to Shift Language

Before we dig into the topic with some more detail, let’s just talk about offering generosity to those around us who are working on shifting to more recovery-oriented language.

In the past when I have been intentionally working on shifting my language, I have had people kindly, and firmly reflect back to me what I said, and how I can say it differently (in a more recovery based way). I always appreciate the feedback. When offering this shift, people tend to respond better when we are firm, respectful, and clear about why the old language doesn’t work with a more recovery-focused paradigm, and then we brainstorm a more strength-based way to say something.

Most people are quite open to receive this kind of feedback and are receptive to integrating change.

However when we are challenged with shame and blame, most people get defensive and dig their heels in. It is so much harder to make a shift when shame is involved.

* Though it can be frustrating to be the one who is always supporting language shifts with colleagues, we must understand that shifting language can be one of the hardest things to do, because it gets embedding so deeply in our brains. When people feel shamed for saying something incorrectly it can create intense negative feelings for everyone. We can also feel like we are tasked with the unwanted role of a language police officer. However, what we are doing is intentionally shifting towards a more recovery-focussed culture, and language is a powerful way to do that.

The Frequently Unconscious Nature Of Language

For most of us our use of language tends to be somewhat unconscious. Words and terms we use all the time just come out of our mouths without that much thought. (Think of what you might yell when you stub your toe!)

Years ago I worked for a well-established organization that changed their name. It took a very long time before the change began to roll off the tongue.

Shifting language means taking the time to examine our long-held beliefs and biases, while take a mindful approach to our language. Anything like this takes practice, effort, and time to shift.

ACTION: Have grace for yourself and others while making the transition.


Though as practitioners we have no control of whether or not a person we are supporting has a sense of hope for their lives, we can make certain that the environment we are creating in our organization is rooted in hope.

Hope is always the catalyst that propels people forward into a journey towards greater well-being. (See PSR/RPS Canada’s Core Principles and Values.)

Language and Hope are very much interconnected. Yet so often people are faced with language and messages that steal away their hope. In my work training WRAP facilitators I have heard many, many sad stories where people were recipients of hope-stealing language from practitioners who’ve served them.

The tides are definitely positively changing, however people are still told many things that infer a very dire prognosis for their lives. It’s time to change this.

ACTION: We must always ask ourselves if the words we are saying are grounded in HOPE. If not, how can we say it differently?

Awareness of Stigma and Biases

Every human being has a worldview based on our life experiences. Because of this, we also have biases. Within my role as a trainer working with health authorities and organizations, I still see stigma showing up WITHIN the system. It’s sadly not just an issue within society at large.

Our biases show up in the language we use. Terms such as “non-compliant” and “manipulative” reflect that kind of bias.

In recovery-oriented care, we always make choice a priority even if that means the people we are supporting choose something different than what the team wants. The term “non-compliant” suggests that the practitioner holds the reigns of the person’s life, not the person themselves.

We as practitioners must understand the importance of facilitating self-determination, vs the practitioner leading the way.

ACTION: Examine our words for biases before we say them, choose words that are hope and self-determination focussed instead.

Other Things to Consider With Language:

  • Are our words culturally sensitive?

  • Are our words trauma-informed? Is there always choice in what we say and offer the people we support? Are we aware of the pervasiveness of trauma in our system, and do we exercise caution about unconsciously triggering someone?

  • Are our words sensitive to gender issues? For example, do we ask people what pronouns they wish us to use?

  • Are our words loaded with internal jargon? The use of jargon and abbreviations can be one of the quickest ways to make someone feel like an outsider.

  • Are we using language that makes someone we support identify themselves by their illness or a deficit? Saying someone is “schizophrenic” negates all the other great things about them, and focuses their identity solely on their illness.

  • Are we careful when talking about the people we support, when they are not there? Do we speak about them in the same way we would say something if they were present? So many practitioners we work with have their own lived experience, and it is very triggering to hear other practitioners say things about people being served that are not recovery-focussed and rooted in stigma and bias.

In Conclusion

Think back on a time when you were spoken to by someone in a strength-based way, with a message of hope. How did that interaction affect you?

I know that when I have been spoken to in a way that is strength-based and hope-filled it gives me that extra boost to be able to face something challenging.

As practitioners of recovery-oriented organizations we are in a position to be able to support people to move towards the life they want, instead of staying stuck in an illness paradigm.

The words we choose can affect someone profoundly for the better.

When we become aware and intentional of our words, we have a very powerful tool to share hope and a message of recovery!

In the comments below please share some stories or thoughts about language. Is there a word that you find troublesome in our system, and if so what would you like to see it changed to?