Removing Mental Health Stigma: The Power of Person First Language
The stigma surrounding mental and behavioral health challenges keeps many people from seeking the help they need. This stigma can be felt in painful instances of stereotyping, prejudice, and/or discrimination. One way to help de-stigmatize mental illness is by using person first language (PFL).
PFL is a mindful way of communicating that expresses knowledge and respect for people living with mental or behavioral health challenges or disabilities. PFL uses phrases such as “a person living with a mental health challenge,” or “individuals living with disabilities,” instead of phrases that identify people based solely on their challenge or disability, such as “the disabled” or “the mentally ill.” PFL encourages the use of words that prioritize the person first and their diagnosis second. This way of communicating differentiates that a person’s diagnosis does not define who they are.
Living with a mental or behavioral health challenge is only one part of a person’s identity. That’s why PFL is important. As Hecht et al. explain, caring and considerate language can “be harnessed to reduce mental health stigma” (2022). Phrases such as ‘afflicted with,’ ‘suffers from,’ and ‘victim of’ imply tragedy and do not consider other aspects of that person’s full story. While it can seem wordy to say "a person living with mental health challenges" rather than saying "a mentally-ill person," this subtle change is impactful and important.
Want to practice? We’re cheering you on! Use this graphic organizer to help integrate PFL into your everyday life.
Language can reinforce stigma OR emphasize individuality, equality, and respect. Consider using PFL in your conversations! You can be an agent of change just by staying mindful.
The Behavioral Health Wellness Environments for Living and Learning (BH WELL) research team exists to promote behavioral health and wellness among individuals facing behavioral health challenges.
Fox, A. B., Earnshaw, V. A., Taverna, E. C., & Vogt, D. (2018). Conceptualizing and Measuring Mental Illness Stigma: The Mental Illness Stigma Framework and Critical Review of Measures. Stigma and health, 3(4), 348–376.
Hecht, Marlene, Andrea Kloß, and Anne Bartsch. “Stopping the Stigma. How Empathy and Reflectiveness Can Help Reduce Mental Health Stigma.” Media psychology. 25.3 (2022): 367–386. Web.