Focus on the Person, not on the Label

How do we refer to someone who we learn has a diagnosis of a mental illness or disability? We want to acknowledge the information we have learned, but we don’t want to embarrass or stigmatize anyone. How do we tell others of our own new diagnosis? Mental health and disability professionals recommend using person-centered language as an aid to understanding and valuing those who have been given a label.

Using person-centered language allows us and the affected individual to identify the person first and not the mental health diagnosis or disability that impacts them. People are not psychotic, depressed, addicts or bipolar. They are not autistic, blind, retarded or brain-injured. People are not their illness or disability label. When we say someone is psychotic, for example, we think only of the need to control their symptoms. When we think of someone as deaf, we tend to think of what they won’t be able to do. Comprehensive treatment of a mental illness or, in the case of a disability, helping the individual accomplish their goals, means that we need to focus on the person’s strengths and potential, instead of just their symptoms or limitations.

Evaluating how we use language to reinforce negative stereotypes or promote strengths and empower others is important. Person-centered language is used to speak appropriately and respectfully about an individual with a disability or mental illness, emphasizing the person first and not the disability. For example, when referring to a person with a disability or mental health illness, one might put “person” first by using phrases such as “a person who …”, “a person with …” or “person who has…”

Thinking of someone as a parent, family member, friend or coworker and helping them to accept the primary importance of that role can help us avoid discriminating against them and isolating them by identifying them by their label. The terms “recovering drug addict” or “a person with substance use disorder” is preferable if you want to help someone identify their need for specific treatment or an appropriate mental health professional. Identifying a person as an individual with an autism spectrum disorder gives those in charge an idea of what environmental modifications or supports might be helpful for that individual, and can help the individual learn when and how to appropriately utilize those modifications.

Individuals who receive services from mental health or disability professionals may choose to be identified as clients, consumers, survivors or a person in recovery. Some may wish for their condition to be confidential and not referred to at all. Take the time to get to know them and find out about them. Ask them how they would like to be identified. Focus on the able, not the label. It will be beneficial to both of you.

Information for this article came from Mental Health America (MHA) and the Indiana Institute for Disability and Community. For more information about mental wellness topics and free mental wellness screenings, visit the Mental Health America of Putnam County Facebook page and MHA’s national web site at, or call the local office at 653-3310.

Published in the Banner-Graphic –

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