HCN News & Notes

In Mental Health, Person-first Language Matters

HOLYOKE — Mental Health Awareness Month in May not only highlights that mental health is as important as physical health, but also promotes understanding of medical conditions that impact mental health and the need to avoid hurtful labels in discussing them.

“How we use language to talk about ourselves and others is key in reducing misunderstanding and marginalization, and that is particularly important when discussing mental health,” said Erica Trudell, director of Inpatient Behavioral Health Nursing & Education at MiraVista Behavioral Health Center. “Anyone can be impacted by poor mental health, and seeking treatment to manage it is no different than seeking treatment for any other medical condition, and our language should be supportive of this need.”

Trudell said reviewing personal bias is a good starting point for anyone. “We need to be aware whether what we know about mental-health conditions is influenced by negative portrayals in movies or long-standing stereotypes designed to exclude. For example, there is an understanding that cancer treatment can cause fatigue and that support is needed. Depression, anxiety, or a condition like bipolar disorder can impact how someone is able to function and interact with others, and that needs to be similarly understood.”

She added that person-first language is designed to convey that there is an understanding of a person’s strength and individualism, and that hurtful language designed to shame someone may result in their reluctance to seek needed treatment.

“More than half of adults in America, according to one recent survey, say they or a family member have experienced a severe mental-health crisis, and this highlights the importance of understanding the nature of poor mental health, avoiding language that is hurtful to someone experiencing it and being supportive in talking with them and encouraging them to seek professional help,” Trudell said.

Among the resources MiraVista encourages others to review is the “Reframing Language” page of the National Family Support Technical Assistance Center (click here).

“The page highlights language considered outdated today in discussing mental illness, explains why, and recommends language that helps with support and understanding,” Trudell said. “Its recommendations include the use of the word ‘acceptance’ over ‘awareness’ to indicate a change in thinking and, similarly, applying the words ‘prejudice’ and ‘discrimination’ rather than ‘stigma’ to encourage a change in thinking and a call for action to stop those with a mental illness from becoming marginalized.”

Sometimes, Trudell went on, “we are not always aware of our prejudicial thinking, but becoming aware of how we use language can change that and become a call for action that is inclusive, and, in this case, helps us all accept the importance of mental health and the need to care for it.”