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Language Matters: You Are Not an Illness

A person should not be defined by an illness or condition. 

Often in popular media or casual conversation, people speak about the subject of a news story or an acquaintance by saying, “he is bipolar”, “schizophrenic”, or “mentally ill.” No one says, “She is cancer,” “she is a heart condition,” or “she is lupus.” Aside from a few very select common physical illnesses, such as diabetes where people find community and comfort in sharing their diagnosis, we would never consider insulting a person by simply identifying them by the disease which they have endured or are managing.  

When it comes to physical diseases, we recognize and use language that affords individuals the dignity of acknowledging that they are far more than any ailment or condition. Yet, when it comes to mental illness, media and society often derogatorily reduce a person to nothing more than the condition from which they suffer, dehumanizing the individual by saying a person IS a condition rather than HAS the condition. We need to realize that using this language stigmatizes people, increasing their anxiety about seeking treatment and about their interactions with family, friends, and colleagues.

When Language Promotes Stigmatization

There is a great deal of evidence that people suffering from mental illness expect to be discriminated against and stigmatized. Media often fuels fear of mental illness. Too often, when violence occurs and there is no clear cause, popular culture, news and social media often jump to speculations that the perpetrator has a mental illness. However, in truth, people suffering from mental illness are 2.5 times more likely to be victims of violence and 1 in 4 individuals will experience mental illness during their lifetime, 1 in 5 in any given year.

Tabloids indulge in over-fanatical stories of celebrities’ struggles with mental illness. Mental illness becomes a diagnosis people feel they must hide to avoid its derogatory and pejorative labels, stigmatization and potential discrimination.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and other institutions are attempting to educate and fight against stigma with the goal of making mental health as much a priority as physical well-being and encouraging people to seek treatment when needed.

The Strength of Person-First Language in Approaching Mental Illness and Crisis Counseling

Often when a person reaches out for help and identifies themselves as being diagnosed with a mental health condition, they often report experiencing sadness or despair, as well as having problems dealing with the condition or feeling isolated or shunned by others. They will say, “I am bipolar.”

Validating their feeling and experiences, while rephrasing that statement to “I hear you dealing with bipolar disorder,” acknowledges that we see them as complete, complex individuals who are not defined by a diagnosis. We can recognize the strength they have in dealing with their situation (strength IDS), acknowledging their pain while being empathetic and assuring them that they are accepted and do not have to feel alone as they move forward.

Using Person-First Language Sensitively: Respecting Individuals and Communities

The limits of person-first language must be acknowledged in dealing with individuals who are neurodivergent and members of disabled communities. Many autistic and Aspergian individuals proudly embrace their identity, just as individuals in LGBTQ or disabled communities embrace their identity, and do say “I am a lesbian”; “I am deaf”; “I am Aspergian.” Students, who are proud of their edge, will often own the different and unique manner their way of thinking gives them in processing information. 

On the other hand, as a crisis counselor, I have had the opportunity to speak to individuals on the spectrum who have felt discriminated against and bullied by others. When speaking to and of people on the spectrum and who identify their disabilities, it is important to respect each individual and whenever possible ask how they wish to be referred to, to allow them to determine how they are represented and spoken of for themselves. Often it is useful to explore whether they have freely chosen to self-identify or are adopting a label that they feel has been used to stigmatized them.

Advocating for Language that Reduces Stigma

The language we use should be respectfully chosen. Realizing the power of labels, particularly derogatory and negative naming, is important. We can carefully choose language that does not promote and encourage negative stereotypes, that names and labels people based on their conditions.

We can also encourage and advocate for positive self-determination by disabled individuals who celebrate their identity and community, starting by respecting their choices on how they prefer to be identify. BY choosing our words more carefully, we can help facilitate the destigmatization of mental illness and promote dignity for all people marginalized by disease and disability.

Resource: NAMI’s Mental Health By The Numbers

Language Matters: You Are Not an Illness

Colleen Donnelly

Prof. Colleen Donnelly teaches at the University of Colorado at Denver and specializes in medieval and twentieth-century literature, language and linguistics. Returning to her earlier science training, she is currently conducting research in medical humanities on issues of mental illness, disability, and narrative voice.

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APA Reference
Donnelly, C. (2019). Language Matters: You Are Not an Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 28 Feb 2019 (Originally: 28 Feb 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 28 Feb 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.