What is person-first language and why is it important?

Person-first (or person-centered) language refers to choosing and using words that recognize and refer to individuals – first and foremost – as people. This demonstrates respect for each person’s basic humanity. It emphasizes their unique traits, strengths, and worth. Compassionate, stigma-free, person-centered words play a role in helping each person on their road to recovery from SMI. People often identify with roles and words that help them find meaning. So when you choose person-first language, you support their pursuit of healing, progress, and goals. Conversely, person-first language mandates that you avoid words that create stigma. This includes words that link a person to their symptoms, illness(es), or condition(s). People sometimes use these terms to refer either to themselves or others who have mental health conditions. It may be done in jest or from a feeling of ownership of these terms. Yet it leads to low self-esteem and it legitimizes language that creates stigma. An example of this is to describe someone as a “schizophrenic,” “frequent flyer,” or a “non-compliant client.” A person-first alternative is “an individual living with schizophrenia.” Evidence supports that the use of person-first language has positive impacts on health outcomes and recovery.



Crocker, A.F., Smith, S.N. (2019). Person-first language: are we practicing what we preach? J Multidiscip Healthc. 2019; 12: 125–129. doi: 10.2147/JMDH.S140067.

Mental Health America (MHA): Person-Centered Language

Minnesota Center for Chemical and Mental Health: Clinical Tip on Person-Centered Language

National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI): Language Used in the Public Policy Platform


  • Was this Helpful ?
  • YesNo

Join our #MissionForBetter now

Sign up for our newsletter. We’ll let you know about new resources, education, and more.