Using Person-First Language

By LaShandra Oliver

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

– George Orwell, 1984

Addressing how we think and speak to and about individuals with behavioral health disorders is just as important to the recovery process as therapy and coping skills.

When you go out with a friend, family member or significant other, for example, how are you introduced? The meet-and-greet is usually something like, “This is my friend/husband/ wife/partner/brother/sister/son/daughter.” Right? Have you ever heard of someone being introduced as “the procrastinator”? What about “the college drop-out,” or “my overweight brother/sister?” Can you imagine how you would feel if you were defined by what you might perceive as your deficits or challenges in life?

Unfortunately, for a person with a behavioral health disorder, their diagnosis often becomes the deficit or life-challenge by which they are defined. “He is a schizophrenic,” “she is bipolar,” or “my schizophrenic uncle,” “my bipolar sister.” Many of my clients have told me that they feel as though the world can see their diagnosis stamped on their forehead.

Defining these individuals by their behavioral health disorders serves only to reinforce feelings of self-consciousness. This negativity can prove demoralizing and stifle motivation to push forward with recovery.

We all have deficits and challenges, but we also all have strengths, needs, abilities, and preferences. It’s the combination of all of these characteristics that makes us unique and human.

In order to promote positive thinking and motivate others, we can adopt “person-first” language. Simply put, person-first language involves using descriptive terms in a way that highlight someone’s humanity versus their deficits or challenges. For example, “my nephew who has autism” is a statement that puts the person (your nephew) before his disorder. By contrast, “my autistic nephew” emphasizes his deficit, and immediately discounts everything else about him. Putting the person second implies that the diagnosis is all that defines him.

Without even realizing it, we all make language choices that can be damaging. As a counseling student, I learned the importance of adopting a “person-first” mentality through the use of “person-first” language. I remember sitting in class describing the agency where I had just started working as a “place that works with schizophrenics.” My teacher interrupted me and stated that I work at a place with “PEOPLE who are diagnosed with schizophrenia.”

When the initial embarrassment of being corrected in class wore off, I thought about what she meant. I hadn’t intended anything negative by what I had said; Ilove my job and respect my clients, but with the turn of a phrase, I had been challenged to consider the potential damage that could be caused by referring to individuals by their diagnosis.

It may seem like a subtle or insignificant change in word order, but opening up the mind to recognizing a person’s diagnosis as only part of the person, and not the whole, can make a world of difference. In addition to discounting the whole person, identifying someone by their diagnosis first can reinforce stereotypes and heighten stigma.

Consider how your language can reflect a person-first mentality. Below are some examples that you can use to evaluate your language choices regarding behavioral health:

  • “Suffering from” versus “living with” (e.g., depression).

“Suffering from…” implies that the depression is stronger than the person. “Living with…” puts the power back in the person’s hands.

  • “Is” (disorder) versus “has” (a disorder)

“My aunt is bipolar” implies that “bipolar” is all that she is. But we are all made up of multiple characteristics, wants, needs, and behaviors. “My aunt has bipolar disorder” allows your aunt to have many other important defining characteristics as well.

  • “Addict” versus “person recovering from”

This is another very common identifier. Calling someone an addict implies that this is who they are and that there can never be a different life for them. A person recovering from substance abuse or addiction has the chance to create their own future and achieve whatever goals they may have set.

You can find additional examples of person-first language here.

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