Here's The Problem With Labels

Labels exit for a variety of reasons in the mental health realm. They can help individuals navigate appropriate treatment options and others with the similar struggles and life experiences. They can normalize an individual’s behavior, and make tangible conceptual ideas. But in some situations, labeling does more harm than good. Some labels stigmatize individuals, thereby reinforcing the negative attributes associated with their label. For example, a child may be diagnosed with “ADHD” when they are actually suffering the effects of a poor diet, lack of sleep, or lower reading skills. If internalized, this label can become integrated into the child’s self-concept, and his/her behavior may therefore increasingly parallel the symptoms of ADHD. Furthermore, the expectations of the child’s peers may also serve to reinforce the label. The same holds true for all diagnoses and labels. Thus, the effects of labeling may more detrimental than helpful.


In 1952, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders listed 106 official mental illnesses; today, there are 297. Essentially, each “disorder” is a list of behaviors that psychiatrists have decided to assigned a name to. This naming process allows for specific drugs to target specific disorders. It also allows for billing through insurance. While this can be helpful in situations where, say, someone with BiPolar Disorder needs Lithium. However, one must keep in mind that there is also a lot of money in this field. There is a positive correlation between the number of disorders and the number of available medication, and pharmaceutical companies benefit from an increase in medications. While medications often play a pivotal role in the treatment of mental disorders, they are not the final solution. In fact, one’s activity level, sleep, and diet often caste just as much, if not more, influence on the status of his/her mental health; however, these factors are often over-looked by people seeking a quick fix through medications. Nonetheless, the concrete nature of labels often leads individuals to believe that the solution lies within a medication, rather than a change in their daily routine.

According to the labeling theory, labels have a self-conforming nature. Thus, it is problematic that we, as a society, have a tendency to label people based off of their shortcomings, rather than their competence. This applies especially to individuals labeled as “drug addicts”. In Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-Step groups, members identify themselves as recovering “alcoholics” and “addicts”. For some, this labeling technique is helpful and productive; however, for others, the label may reinforce and perpetuate addictive tendencies. That is why some individuals prefer self-empowering programs, such as SMART Recovery, where labels are discouraged. The same idea goes for individuals deemed as “criminals”. Imagine that Sally stole from Target when she was 16. Her peers, friends, and family regarded her as a “criminal” repeatedly the following months. While Sally did not initially identify as a “criminal”, this label became engrained into her self-identity. Thus, she her behavior began to reflect that of a “criminal”, much life a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When we label people as “addicts” or “criminals”, we are essentially assigning them an identity with a negative connotation, thereby implying that there is something inherently negative about them. The same goes for mental illness. Don’t let the stigma of a diagnosis fuel your negative self-image.

At Recovery Fusion Santa Barbara Addiction Treatment, our goal is to make clients feel empowered. We have adopted phrases such as “substance misuser” and “individuals with substance use issues” to replace potentially stigmatizing ones such as “substance abuser” and “addict”. We hope that other recovery support services start doing the same.