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

People with mental illness

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. 

2 thoughts on “Mentally Ill or Person With Mental Illness? A Word About Person-First Language”

  1. I think this is a wonderful article, with which I thoroughly agree. Actually, I’d hesitated to read it, primarily because I’ve tried to help a lot of homeless, mentally ill people, some of whom have been on the streets for decades. They are not “people experiencing homelessness,” or “people experiencing schizophrenia.” And it’s not just stigma that those who insist on using the person first approach are afraid of. I think a lot of it is because so many have, for far too long, insisted that homelessness is all about housing. I agree that nothing works to end homelessness without housing, but homelessness is about a LOT more than housing. The utter failure of the mental health system is a major piece of it.

    1. I just read an article calling the homeless “unhoused” people. As you say, it is not just about housing. It is in large part the result of the failure of the mental health system.

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