Why It’s Important to Use Person-First Language

You know that the way you talk about and to your clients is important. Most therapists I know refer to the people they treat as “clients” as opposed to “patients.” This is because it takes away the pathology. If you’re called a patient that might imply that there’s something wrong with you.

The same principle applies when talking about your clients. How do you refer to them? Is your client autistic or are they a person with autism? If they’re a person with autism, you’re using person-first language

It’s important to use person-first language as a mental health professional. Person-first language puts the person before their diagnosis. It removes the pathology of having a mental health diagnosis.

Notice I didn’t say “mental illness.” While some people may identify as having a mental illness, I prefer to say “mental health diagnosis.” Again, illness pathologizes. Another way you could phrase it is to say “mental health challenges.” 

The Power of Words

The way we talk about people matters. There are words that used to be in the DSM (Diagnostic  Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) that are no longer appropriate to use, such as the word “retarded.” In 2013, the diagnosis of “mental retardation” in the DSM was changed to “intellectual disability.” [1] I’m sure you’ve heard people say “that’s retarded” when what they really mean is “that’s dumb” or “that’s stupid.” It’s like when people say “that’s so gay.” 

You would never say these things. I know that! But how many times have you said “so-and-so is schizophrenic” or “she’s bipolar” or “he’s autistic”? 

You may not even realize you did it. It’s the way people talk.

Sometimes, you may have clients who don’t use person-first language. They may say “I’m autistic” and that’s their choice. Do everything you can to make sure that you’re not the reason they aren’t using person-first language. Maybe they identify as autistic, and that’s fine. But if they’re saying “I’m autistic” rather than “I have autism” it may be a learned phrase and not one that’s actually true to them. Imposing the word “autistic” onto someone takes away their opportunity to identify as anything else.

Using Person-First Language 

What is person-first language in the realm of mental health?

Well, we live in a society that unfortunately categorizes mental illness as a disability. I prefer the words “differently-abled” to “disabled,” as I’m sure many of you do too. But unfortunately, the word “disability” is something that people in our society think they understand, and so that’s the word I’ll use for the sake of clarity. 

Labels are necessary in order to receive services, but they hurt the people who are labeled as “disabled” or “mentally ill.” As you know, someone can’t be treated if they don’t have a diagnosis. Diagnoses help people understand the challenges they face, for sure. But they also put people in a box that’s difficult to open once placed inside it.

Person-first language puts the person in question before the disability or mental health challenge. [2] The thing is, you can see both the person and the disability without the disability becoming tied to the person’s identity. This way, the person isn’t defined by their disability.

Why Should Mental Health Professionals Use Person-First Language?

We’ve already established that calling someone with schizophrenia “schizophrenic” identifies them by their mental health diagnosis rather than by who they are as a person. Frankly, it’s dehumanizing. You would never say to a client “you are schizophrenic.”

But it’s also important to realize how you talk about your clients to your peers. It’s very easy to lose person-first language, especially if you work with people more familiar with a medical model, like in a psychiatric hospital. I

n the hospital, clients are patients. They’re identified by their diagnoses and not by who they are. Maybe not to you, but to the system as a whole, someone in a psychiatric hospital is a sick patient with a disability and a mental illness.

You know better, though. I know you treat your clients with respect. Part of that is how you talk about them to other clinicians and to their family and friends.

Writing About Mental Health Using Person-First Language

When you hire a copywriter to write for you, make sure they understand the importance of person-first language. This is where hiring a mental health copywriter who used to be a therapist, like me, is handy. Your copywriter should understand what person-first language is and they should use it when they write for you.

The way you write about mental health is important. If I was a potential client visiting your website and saw that you didn’t use person-first or trauma-informed language, I’d click away and move on to someone else. 

As a therapist, you know that establishing trust is one of the hardest and most crucial parts of the therapeutic relationship. Person-first language is one way to do that. Online, when words are all there is, make every word count. 

Person-First Language in Mental Health Copywriting

Copywriters like catchy phrases. They want to help you stand out and get people to sign up for your services or your email list or your workshop. Phrases and words that grab people’s attention are great. But what’s not great is doing so at the sake of someone else.

If you want to work with a mental health copywriter who understands the importance of using person-first language, contact me. Let me help you make sure your copy is not just catchy, but kind. Together, let’s demonstrate how to talk about people in a dignified, therapeutic way.




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