A Word about First-Person Language

KRISTINA ROLFE
WRITER, MENTAL HEALTH ADVOCATE
[Kristina Rolfe is a Baltimore based writer, with 15+ years of experience writing and editing for nonprofit health organizations. She holds a master’s degree in professional writing from Towson University and an MBA from the University of Maryland, Robert H. Smith School of Business.] 

Mentally Ill or Person With Mental Illness? A Word About Person-First Language

December 4, 2020 [Excerpt] Some people are quick to criticize the use of the term “mentally ill” instead of “person with mental illness,” arguing that we should always use “person-first” language. 

The insistence of person-first language relies on the premise that people are more than their diagnosis and that mental illness is somehow shameful. But mental illness is a brain disease—there is nothing shameful about it. If you have a serious mental illness, it is a part of your identity. When you live with it every day and it affects every aspect of your life, how could it not be?

When I worked for a children’s hospital, we were told to always use person-first language: person with autism, individual with a disability, etc. It was drilled into our heads and practically a cardinal sin if someone accidentally wrote or said “autistic.” But it turns out, the people who were insisting on person-first language were not the ones who actually had these conditions.

In the autism community, many object to person-first language and prefer to be called “autistic.” The notion of separating autism from the person implies that autism has a negative connotation. It adds stigma when there shouldn’t be. Likewise, deaf people reject person-first language, preferring instead “deaf person” or “hard-of-hearing person.” While society encourages people to disassociate themselves from the condition, others find that notion offensive.

While I understand the intent of person-first language, I wonder how many people who have mental illness are actually offended by the term “mentally ill.” When I read about people who object to using the words “mentally ill,” “bipolar” or “schizophrenic,” it is invariably a parent, a professional or a caregiver and not the person with the illness. To my knowledge, there is not a strong coalition of people with mental illness who are calling for person-first language.

Are diabetics ashamed to have diabetes? Are epileptics ashamed of their epilepsy? Of course not. Why should they be? They are illnesses. So why should we assume the mentally ill should be ashamed of their brain disorder? What we really should be ashamed of is discrimination of the mentally ill.

When we impose language on other groups, we should think about why. Perhaps we are the ones who are uncomfortable, not the ones with the illness. My point is that you shouldn’t be quick to speak for a group unless you are part of the group. Trying to be politically correct sometimes can cause more harm than good. 

What do you think? Do you disagree? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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