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Words Can Hurt: Talking About Health Issues, Wisely

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Words Can Hurt: Talking About Health Issues, Wisely

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We’ve all known that the childhood rhyme “sticks and stones” is very far from the truth—words can definitely do more damage than broken bones. As health practitioners, it is important to pay attention to the words we use when describing others (especially people with health conditions, disabilities, or mental health issues).

Kaiser Health News recently published an article about how the media often use words that can wound when describing people with mental health issues and disabilities. The article begins with a story of an NPR correspondent asking a lawyer whether his client was a “nut case.”

Readers and listeners responded, calling out the reporter’s insensitive choice of words. NPR’s ombudsman responded in a blog post and the reporter claims that her choice of words was not in reference to a person with mental health issues, but instead a “term to indicate a total flake.”

The Kaiser Health News article goes on to talk about the strong reaction people have with word choices when describing these sensitive topics. It’s not just a politically correct issue—one interviewee said that these terms result in stigmatization of people with mental health issues and can negatively affect a person’s ability to get a job, find housing, and have social relationships.

Read the article here.  

One way to avoid stigmatization is to use person-first language when talking about people with disabilities and other health issues. The National Center on Disability and Journalism has a style guide to help journalists understand person-first language. 

You can use the list as well, as it is a good reminder that the way we describe health issues can hurt, offend, and stigmatize. 

Here are a few reminders from the style guide (read the whole guide here): 

  • Avoid referring to “the disabled.” Remember that it is akin to saying “the Asians” or “the Jews.”
  • Using the term “suffers from” assumes that the person with a disability is suffering or has a reduced quality of life.

Check out the whole list here.  

Do you have any tips for remembering to use person-first language? How do you encourage others to be mindful of the words they use to describe disabilities, mental health issues, and other health conditions? Tell us in the comments.

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  • Glad to see you specifically mention the problems with 'suffering from' terminology.  I have seen a little too much of this within our own OT community lately and it has been disappointing.  It has been even more disappointing to see that corrections were not made when the problems were pointed to directly with using this terminology.  I hope people will see this post and be moved to action.  Words matter - I agree.

    Christopher J. Alterio, Dr.OT, OTR

  • Thank you, Christopher. I think we can all use reminders about this every now and then.