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What terms should we be using in behavioral healthcare?

February 5, 2016
by H. Steven Moffic
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Consider the name of our field: behavioral healthcare. We all should also know that names and terminology in our field can have powerful psychological and attitudinal ramifications. As such, they can potentially help or harm our patients or, if you prefer, our “consumers,” or our “customers.”

Recently, I’ve questioned whether some terminology needs to be updated. One area is within psychiatric medications. A group of prominent psychopharmacologists feels that such commonly used terms as “antidepressants,” “antianxiety agents,” and “antipsychotics” can be misleading For instance, antidepressants also generally can help anxiety, which confuses patients who are told they are being prescribed a well-known antidepressant to reduce their anxiety.

Advocates in substance use treatment seem concerned that such terms as “abuse,” “addicts,” and “dependency” are too stigmatizing. Why not say “overuse” instead, I wonder?

Or in my own profession, I dislike the term “shrink” being applied to psychiatrists. Our goal is to expand one’s mind, not shrink it. And we certainly are not practicing the ancient tribal ritual of severing and preserving the heads of our enemies, which is where this silly word comes from.

There is no official body that determines these sorts of names and terminology in our field, so it is up to us. In your settings, do you discuss and decide what terminology to use and why? Would you change the names and terminology for medication and substance abuse problems? If so, to what, and why?

My professional name is H. Steven Moffic, MD. The “H” stands for Hillard, my given first name, and Steven is my middle name. I didn't like Hillard growing up, but have come to embrace it later in life. Although my absolute favorite name is “Hey-Hey,” which is what my oldest grandchild calls me. 



Thank you, "Hey-Hey," for sharing a topic near and dear to our hearts in Behavioral Health. It's been my experience that change comes within. Even organizational/community --> Cultural change. Building and nurturing a team dedicated to removing as much stigma, to promoting thorough integration, and to providing stellar care for those who we serve... That's a significant portion of a few battles won!. If each of us grows change champions for the positive, how can we do anything but succeed?
I used an example of what I work to change with using, "...the people we serve," vs client or patient. I understand those may or may not have been used before, but I plan to help them grow roots. Incorporating trauma informed and recovery oriented verbiage into job descriptions is another step towards the same goal. Just so all new team members experience our belief system from the very first day.
Best luck in your endeavors, sir. Have a great day.


H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic, M.D. retired from the clinical practice of psychiatry and his tenured...

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