Today I’m going to talk about language. I’m a huge fan of person-first language. I think it’s important that personhood is not erased by disabilities, like when you say “a schizophrenic,” “the mentally ill,” “borderlines,” “a drug addict,” “psychotic,” or “an obsessive-compulsive.” All of those descriptors should be adjectives that describe a person, not nouns that replace them. A lot of people have gotten on board with that, but there seems to be a fundamental miscommunication about the intention of person-first language.  It’s not just to literally arrange words so that the person is spoken or written before the disability. It’s about affirmative language, reframing thinking, empowerment, destigmatization, and acknowledging the normality of disability.

So when people use “person-first language” like this:

He’s suffering from schizophrenia.

People afflicted with mental illness.

People burdened by borderline personality disorder.

She’s a victim of drug addiction.

Ze overcame/conquered/defeated psychosis.

He struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

It’s just not accomplishing the intention of the philosophy.

Here’s why:

  1. It implies helplessness and is disempowering. When you say the words “affliction,” “suffering,” “burden,” “struggle,” and “victim,” you do not think of strong, independent, and well-functioning members of the community. Those words do not acknowledge that people who have these diagnoses are perfectly capable of living well, reaching their goals, and feeling fulfilled. Those words can rob people of their confidence that they can recover and leave them feeling permanently damaged by their illness.
  2. It evokes feelings of pity, which implies inferiority. People do not pity those that they respect and admire. I do not pity my boss for her accomplishments, I do not pity my professors’ wealth of knowledge, I do not even pity my cat, who is in fact inferior to me, but I love and cherish like the valuable being that she is. Pity is an emotion that is exclusively felt for people that you feel are less capable, less valuable, less intelligent, less admirable, less, less, less. We are not pitiful because we have a diagnosis.
  3. It implies that someone in recovery has done something extraordinarily rare, superhuman, and incredible. It implies that mental health conditions are ferocious beasts that leave few surviving in their wake. Neither of these things are true. Mental health conditions happen to a whole lot of people and all of them, given the tools and empowerment to do so, can live well. Most of them do. Making it out to be some astonishing feat with words like “conquered” and “defeated” gives more power to the diagnosis than it deserves.
  4. It continues to overwhelm personhood despite literally putting the person first. Most people do not think that someone suffering from a terrible affliction or burdened by a horrific struggle is capable of doing or being anything but “sick.” In reality, a whole lot people with mental health conditions excel in their careers, attend college and graduate school, are fantastic spouses and parents, and generally succeed in the common activities and roles of the human experience. We’re just people.

So, let’s try that person-first thing one more time without being dramatic.

He has schizophrenia.

People with mental health conditions.

People who have borderline personality disorder.

She has an addiction.

Ze experienced psychosis.

He has obsessive-compulsive disorder.

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Kate Fitch

I've been with the Network since 2015, when I started as a volunteer. I've been on staff as the Communications Specialist since January 2017. I'm currently in college and pursuing a dual BA in Public Health and Public Administration. I'm most passionate about making sure that people with mental health conditions are fairly represented in the media, at policy tables, and in treatment system planning. In my spare time, I like to crochet, knit, and be the best cat mom ever.

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