Skip to the content


Last week, members of Fors Marsh Group’s Communication Research Strategy and Outreach Division attended the Society for Health Communication’s 2020 Virtual Summit. Over the course of two days, we, along with nearly 300 other health and communications professionals, heard from experts about the role of health communications in the COVID-19 pandemic and best practices for building health literacy and evaluating the effectiveness of communications in an ever-changing media environment.

My favorite speaker was writer and reporter Zachary Siegel, who talked about the adverse impacts of stigmatizing language related to drug use and addiction. During his presentation, Zachary Siegel shared the below infographic from the Recovery Research Institute summarizing key findings from a study investigating perceptions of two different framings of people who are “actively using drugs and alcohol.”

A growing body of research is demonstrating that the words we use to talk about sensitive health topics impact how health care providers, policy makers, and the public think about, investigate, and treat the people who are affected by these issues. In general, language that focuses on the person instead of the illness or disability (e.g., “person with mental illness” instead of “mentally-ill person”) is less likely to perpetuate stigmas around specific conditions and the individuals who experience them.

At Fors Marsh Group, we work with the Defense Suicide Prevention Office (DSPO) researching effective strategies for communicating suicide risk and suicide prevention to Service members. We pay special attention to avoiding transgressive language like “committed suicide” and use phrases like “death by suicide” when discussing suicide mortality. We also avoid language like “successful/unsuccessful suicide attempt” given the implicit associations of the word success (i.e., gain, accomplishment, victory, etc.).

Myths and misconceptions around the nature of suicide and who is at risk for it have resulted in a media environment in which stories about suicide are glamorized or dramatized (and language like “commit suicide” is more likely to appear). Many have found that stories like these increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals.[1] To help combat this trend, DSPO recommends considering the following points when covering suicide.[2]

Thankfully, increasingly comprehensive resources are available for those of us thinking and writing about these topics on a regular basis., Poynter Institute, Action Alliance, and Suicide Prevention Resource Center have developed a wide range of tools and trainings to support writers and communicators who want to be proactive about how they discuss suicide, people who have experienced suicidal ideation, and people who have lived through suicide attempts.

I have been asked what tactics people can employ to minimize stigma related to chronic conditions.  I always recommend that if people can only do one thing, they respect other’s wishes for how they want to be identified. If you are not able to ask someone, then try the following: when discussing individuals with conditions or disabilities of any kind, reference the person first. 

Person-Centric Language Examples

  • Patient with diabetes (instead of “diabetic patient”)
  • My friend experiences anxiety (instead of “she’s an anxious person”)
  • That person uses a wheelchair (instead of “wheel-chair bound,” “crippled,” or “disabled”).

In fact, people often find over time that this approach helps to break down communication barriers in other aspects of their life as well.

  • Neighbor who roots for the Cowboys (instead of “the enemy”)
  • Person who thinks differently from me (instead of “idiot”)

Whatever the topic, whoever the person, it is generally best to talk and think about each other as people who have a wide range of life experiences instead of defining each other by our life experiences.




About the author

Claire Constance

Claire Constance

Claire Constance is a public health researcher with over five years of experience conducting mixed-methods research for government and private sector clients. Claire has conducted research both domestically and internationally on sensitive topics related to health communication, organizational branding, and campaign development. In her time at FMG, Claire has managed and supported studies for government clients such as CBP, U.S. Coast Guard, DOD, and FDA. As a RIVA-trained focus group moderator, Claire has used her qualitative expertise to inform the design and execution of interviews, focus groups, and surveys for the development and evaluation of educational materials, campaigns, policies, and brands. Before working at FMG, Claire was a health policy fellow at the International Organization of Migration where she provided research and consulting expertise on migrant health policy. During her tenure at UVA, Claire served as the Student Liaison of UVA’s Center for Global Health where she provided strategy and guidance on public health education and programming.

Let's Work Together

We’re here to help, so ask us anything.

Insight Delivered

Subscribe to our newsletter to stay up-to-date on our latest news and outlook.

Please enter a valid Email address