Imagine this. You go to see your primary care physician for your regular check-up and she orders some additional lab work. You can’t stand needles but you oblige anyway because taking care of your physical health is something that you’re supposed to do. You suffer through the draws and head home to wait for the results to come in. Your physician calls you up on the phone and wants you to come back in for a follow-up. You schedule a time and make all the arrangements. You arrive early, thumb through some dated magazine, catch up on your social media, and finally hear the nurse call your name. You sit down and wait again, wondering what all this could be about. Your physician comes in. “You’re cancer.”
Absurdity. No doctor would ever tell someone that they are cancer, or hang-nail, or Alzheimer’s. Yet, this style of language is commonly used when discussing mental health conditions. So-and-so is Depressed. So-and-so is Bipolar. So-and-so is Schizophrenic. Raise your hand if you’ve ever used any of these terms before. Go on. Actually raise your hand. Ok, let’s put our hands down now in case someone sees us. You’re not alone. We’ve all done it. But, let’s explore the implications for this style of language and what that communicates to the 1 in 5 of us that are living with one of these diagnoses every single year.
Each of us are many things and assume many different roles in our lives. We may be a parent, a sibling, a teacher, a colleague, etc. How often though do we describe ourselves based on a medical diagnosis? As human beings, our sense of self is completely wrapped up in the various roles we play; the different faces we put on each day. We get caught up in what we “are” and use those categories to shape our sense of self.
When we use terms like depressed, bipolar, or schizophrenic to describe someone, we are diminishing a person’s individuality and humanity; boiling down every unique aspect about the person into one category: that person is ill. For some of us, this may not be that big of a deal, but for others, we may begin to internalize these descriptions, integrating them into our sense of self and our identity. This creates a burden and unnecessary challenge for that individual, making the idea of recovery a foreign and distant concept.
In a world that is growing ever more divisive, we continuously hear things like, “what’s the big deal?” or “why do we have to tip-toe around every little word?”
The answer is that human beings are complex creatures and very little about us is ever black-and-white. Our emotional and psychological development never really finish evolving and we continuously assimilate new information at an incredible rate. So the big deal is that using terminology that puts a person’s condition before their humanity creates greater gaps between that person and recovery.
Through the use of what we call Person-First Language, we can begin to bust down some of the stigma that surrounds mental illness and substance use disorders. By putting the person before the condition, we acknowledge that the person is more than their illness. They have humanity and are worthy of being treated with dignity and respect. Simple changes such as changing “That person is bipolar” to “That person is living with bipolar disorder” can have a profound effect. Saying that someone is “experiencing schizophrenia” rather than saying that someone “is schizophrenic” acknowledges that the person does not fit neatly into a tiny little box, as so many of us don’t.
At Mental Health First Aid Illinois, we invite you to join us in changing the language we use to describe mental health and substance use conditions. We invite you to recognize the uniqueness of each person. And we invite you to help us eliminate stigma through example. Be brave. Call out the stigma when you see or hear it. You never know who may be listening and quietly thanking you to themselves. You can make all the difference.
Isaac Sandidge – Mental Health First Aid Instructor