Making Respect a Habit: Using Person-First Language


Making Respect a Habit: Using Person-first Language

The mental health field can be highly challenging. Providers deal with mental, physical, and emotional challenges that cannot simply be solved with some routine labwork and some penicillin. Because substance abuse and mental health issues are so complex, the person and the patient can get lost in the process. Remembering to be respectful, put the person first, and use person-first language can make a difference for both patients and providers.

What Is Person-First Language?

While some might complain about the world becoming too “politically correct,” there are many areas in which language can dignify or degrade, and person-first language is a perfect example of language that can dignify. Person-first language puts the person before the disability. The language defines what a person has, not who the person is.

Some examples that substance abuse and mental health care providers might use include:

  • Person with a substance use disorder instead of addict
  • Person with an alcohol use disorder instead of alcoholic
  • Person with a mental health diagnosis instead of emotionally disturbed or mentally ill
  • Person with autism instead of autistic
  • Person with a learning disability instead of learning disabled
  • Student that receives special education services instead of special ed student

Why Should the Person Come Before the Disorder?

When your words matter, you demonstrate that the person matters. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) offers information on why words matter in the treatment of substance use and mental health disorders. Placing the person before the disability or diagnosis verbally makes the statement to the patient, yourself, and everyone else that the person is the most important part of the discussion. How you address your patients also impacts the stigma surrounding mental health care.

When the diagnosis or disability is first, it denotes that the person is that diagnosis or disability. A disability or diagnosis should not be allowed to define someone, rather the person should always come first. Just as it is inappropriate to say “that pimple-faced boy over there,” because the boy is not defined by his acne, a mental health or substance use disorder should not define a person either.

Can Respect Make a Significant Difference?

Showing respect for your patients as human beings first can make a significant difference in their treatment. Self-esteem is a major part of mental wellness and is particularly important for adolescents. When you label them as their diagnosis or disorder, they own that and can believe that they are less than others.

On the contrary, the respect you demonstrate to them as their provider by using person-first language can significantly improve their self-esteem by letting them know that you see them as a human being, not as their diagnosis. By showing them respect, they learn to respect themselves as well. You can empower your patients with your word choices.

What Does Person-First Language Communicate to the Patient?

When you use person-first language, that simple display of respect tells your patient that they are a person first and foremost. Language tells them that their diagnosis or disorder does not define them and that perhaps their diagnosis or disorder is something they have control over rather than something that controls their outcome.

Using person-first language communicates to the patient that you see them as human, that you understand that they are a person first, and their condition is secondary. Person-first language communicates compassion and understanding of their struggles rather than labeling them as their struggles. The language you use also can affect how they see you as a provider.

Can the Language Providers Use Affect the Provider?

Likewise, the language that providers use toward their patients’ impacts how they see the patient. Are they a human being? Or are they a medical condition? Are they a person that is worth respect and dignity? Or are they a label, a patient number, a name on a caseload?

Providers who use person-first language see the person first and can offer more compassionate care. Offering the patient the respect and dignity of person-first language can help providers to remember the purpose of their care – the person. When care is offered with compassion and respect, you are a better provider of care.

How Does Person-First Language Affect the Industry?

Person-first language helps to reduce stigma and increase humanity within the mental health care and substance abuse treatment industry. By creating a habit of respecting your patients, you create the expectation for other providers to do the same.

You also create the expectation for the patients to see themselves as human, to build their self-esteem, and increase the expectations they have for themselves to overcome challenges rather than use those challenges to define themselves. The language that you use can have a ripple effect for better or for worse. By using person-first language, you make the world a better place.

While the mental health field can be particularly challenging, showing respect to your patients and using person-first language can impact your patients’ lives, outcomes, and quality of care. By being willing to put the person first, you can help decrease stigma and increase respect for patients and their diagnoses. Sustain Recovery knows that respect is crucial to get teens to buy into their treatment. Showing respect for the patient earns their respect for you and increases the chances of a positive treatment outcome. Our extended residential care facility is located in Irvine, California, and offers teens the chance to be a person first and to receive treatment for their diagnosis. We specialize in treating patients who have not succeeded in traditional residential care settings. If you have a client who needs more care than they are receiving, contact us at (949) 407-9052 to see if our program is a better fit for them.