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Being diagnosed with a mental health disorder can be overwhelming, leaving individuals with many questions and uncertainties. They may wonder about the implications of their diagnosis, whether they will recover, and if being diagnosed means they are "crazy."

The portrayal of mental illness in the media and society's perception of it can greatly complicate the process of coping with a mental health diagnosis. The long history of discrimination within the mental health community has created a necessity for individuals to reclaim their sense of self. Placing the person at the forefront of the treatment process is crucial for mental health treatment. This is where person first language comes into play, helping to prioritize individuals' humanity and their journeys towards healing.

What is People First Language?

Person first (or person-centered) language refers to choosing and using words that recognize and refer to individuals – first and foremost – as people. This demonstrates respect for each person’s basic humanity. It emphasizes their unique traits, strengths, and worth. Compassionate, stigma-free, person-centered words play a role in helping each person in their journey with a mental health condition.

People often identify with roles and words that help them find meaning. So when you choose people first language, you support their pursuit of healing, progress, and goals. Conversely, people first language mandates that you avoid words that create stigma. This includes words that initially link a person to their symptoms or illness. An example of this would be to describe someone as a “schizophrenic,” “non-compliant client,” or “bipolar.” A person first alternative is “an individual living with schizophrenia.” (Source: SMIAdviser)

Why is Person First Language Important?

Evidence shows that the use of person first language positively impacts health outcomes and recovery. It is important that people are seen first as people, and not seen only as their mental health conditions. People are not schizophrenic, bipolar, or borderline. People are not simply cases or illnesses to be managed.

An illness-centered approach can negatively impact outcomes and recovery. For example, when people are seen only as schizophrenic, it becomes too easy to focus only on reducing symptoms. However, there is so much more to making progress than just getting rid of symptoms. Progress involves increasing people's ability to make the changes they want in their lives – the power to get better, to identify their goals, and access the supports needed to attain their goals. This approach takes into account people's strengths, and the choices they want for their lives, and not just their symptoms or diagnosis.


Person First Language and Mental Health

It is important to assess the way we use language, and think about the ways our use of language reinforces negative biases, or promotes strengths. It is helpful to remember that people often identify by roles where they find meaning. Strengths-based roles can help us to feel better and promote recovery. For example, one could say, “I am a mother, a brother, a plumber, a friend.” On the other hand, negative language can reinforce discrimination and isolation in society. It can be hurtful and detrimental to the recovery process to be referred to with negative language.

In the mental health field, people may self-identify as clients, consumers, peers, survivors, or a person in recovery. When taking a person first approach, people should be identified by the language or title with which they feel most comfortable. This person first approach can lead to empowerment, which improves outcomes and recovery.

Examples of People- First Language

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Jessica Carey
Post by Jessica Carey
May 30, 2023