Language not only describes what we think, but shapes how we think. Many of us remember terms that have fallen out of fashion or even have been deemed offensive (good riddance, in many cases), especially when it comes to behavioral health. One of the biggest changes, thankfully, has been a shift over the last decade or so to “person first” language.

At its core, “person-first” language describes the condition a person has, rather than who they are. AHA’s long-term and continuing “People Matter, Words Matter” project aims to dispel the stigma around psychiatric and substance use disorders through a series of downloadable posters that encourage health care providers to adopt patient-centered, respectful language.

This project is guided by one major tenet: People matter and the words we use to describe them or the disorders they have matter.

The benefits of “person-first” language are incalculable. First, it reminds us that we are talking about a human – not a disability, not a behavioral health or chronic physical condition – but a person who is living a life full of needs, wants, fears, joy, sorrow and, above all, the primary desire for connection we all feel. Calling someone an “addict” removes their personhood and reduces them to their condition. A “person with substance use disorder,” on the other hand, is a human being as complex and complicated as the rest of us, who also has a chronic behavioral health condition. No term, however, is one-size-fits-all. While one person may prefer being described as an “alcoholic,” another may prefer “person with alcohol use disorder.” To some people it won’t matter at all. The most important thing about person-first language is to respect the person and to listen if and when they tell you how they wished to be described.

When we began the “People Matter, Words Matter” project in 2021 with the first poster [link], which uses person-first language, acknowledging the person rather than the illness or disability, we hoped to educate and encourage help health care providers to use person-first language not only with their patients, but with one another, with the public at large and even with themselves. We continued with posters covering topics such as youth mental health, suicide, culturally and racially aware language and others, and are planning posters on disabilities and ageism as well as a leadership guide to help managers and leaders to effectively talk about person-first language with their teams.

Since its inception, we have heard of hospitals and health systems not only using the posters in their clinical care settings but placing them in publicly accessible areas, such as cafeterias and bathrooms, bringing person-first language to people who may not be aware of its importance. Small steps can reduce stigma in big ways.

The work encompassed by the “People Matter, Words Matter” series is continually evolving. We can be sure that, just as our understanding of behavioral health shifts and changes, so will the language we use to describe it. But at the top of our priority list will always be to place the person first, to keep their humanity in mind and to encourage others to do the same.

Read and download the People Matter, Words Matter series here.

Rebecca Chickey is AHA's senior director for behavioral health services. Rebecca shapes behavioral health strategy and health policy; establishes and strengthens relationships with C-Suite leaders in the field; and provides “best in class” thought leadership and knowledge exchange.

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