Why Is People-First Language Important?

When a person is diagnosed with a mental health problem, it can be hard for them to understand what it all means. What does being diagnosed with a bipolar disorder mean? Will I get better? Does this mean I’m “crazy”?

The process of dealing with a mental health diagnosis is made more difficult by the way mental illness is often portrayed in the media and viewed by society. The history of discrimination in the mental health community led to a need for individuals to reclaim their identity. Placing the person at the center of the treatment process should be the foundation of recovery. People-first language helps do that.

People-First Language Definition

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 on their road to recovery from mental illness.

People often identify with roles and words that help them find meaning. So when you choose person-first language, you support their pursuit of healing, progress, and goals. Conversely, person-first language mandates that you avoid words that create stigma. This includes words that 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 People-First Language Important?

Evidence supports 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 as their mental health condition. People are not Schizophrenic, Bipolar, or Borderline. People are not cases or illnesses to be managed.

An illness-centered approach can impact outcomes and recovery. When people are seen only as Schizophrenic, it becomes too easy to focus on reducing symptoms of psychosis. However, there is so much more to getting better than getting rid of the voices or other symptoms. Recovery involves increasing a person’s ability to make the changes they want in their life – the power to get better, to identify their goals, and access the supports needed to attain their goals. Recovery means focusing on the person’s strengths and the choices they want for their lives and not just their symptoms or diagnosis.

People-First Language and Mental Health

We need to assess the way we use language and how the 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 help us to feel better and promote recovery: “I am a mother, a brother, a plumber, a friend.” Negative language reinforces discrimination and isolation in society. It can be hurtful and detrimental to the recovery process referred to with negative language.

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

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