by Amanda Kearney-Smith
May is mental health awareness month, a whole month dedicated
to raising awareness and breaking down stigma. So why do I keep seeing headlines like this…..
“How to Get the Mentally Ill Out of Jail and Off the Streets”
How can we break down stigma when we use language like “the mentally ill”? Would we refer to someone with a physical disability as the “physically ill” – no because that would be inappropriate, offensive, and inaccurate. Most of us with chronic mental health conditions don’t think of ourselves as “ill” – no instead I think of myself as a human being, as an advocate, as a wife/friend/daughter. And then yes, I deal with a disorder that challenges me daily.
So how about Person First Language (PFL)¹? Lets talk about the person – first. This is so basic and so easy and much more respectful. So instead of “the mentally ill” replace with “individuals with mental health conditions” or “persons with mental illnesses” or “people experiencing a mental health issue”.
As Kathy Snow, author of the “Disability is Natural” website talks about how using PFL is not just about semantics. She mentions that the dictionary defines “semantics” as the “study of meanings in language” – in other words its the meaning that matters². And if that’s what semantics means then semantics are critically important.
Words matter – words can hurt – the words you use have meaning. If you’re not sure – ask – ask what someone wants to be called and don’t assume.
We all balance mental and physical health – so referring to individuals who struggle with the balance as “the mentally ill” is stigmatizing. This is a matter of respect for your fellow human-beings.