Person-First Or Identity-First: How We Use Language About Diagnosis Matters

Highest Standards, Nationally Recognized:

Person-First Or Identity-First: How We Use Language About Diagnosis Matters

When you are given a mental health diagnosis you gain a new part of your identity. There is specific parts of that language to pay attention to. You gain a new part of your identity. When you are given a mental health diagnosis you do not gain a new identity. Often in mental health treatment and recovery we encourage people to work against the shame and stigma that comes from mental illness by telling them, “You are not your diagnosis”.

Some people, however, embrace that identity. After struggling for years of their lives to understand what is going on with the state of their mental health, they are relieved to have a title. These individuals beat themselves up, shame themselves, and live by the stigma they have been given just for being different. Whatever shame and stigma comes with their specific mental health diagnosis, it doesn’t matter to them. Within the community of having a mental illness, being mentally ill, and meeting people with their specific diagnosis, they find belonging. The identity doesn’t wear them down, it helps build them back up.

It’s a matter of person-first or identity-first language. Person-first language is saying “I have mental illness”. Identity-first language is saying “I am mental illness.” However, the language and name of mental health disorders complicates this. For example, you might say “I have narcissistic personality disorder” or “I am narcissistic”. Most often, however, the title appropriated is “They are a narcissist.” Yet, in comparison, someone with an anxiety disorder it wouldn’t make sense to say “I am anxious” because anyone can be anxious. They can say “I have anxiety disorder”. In further comparison- “I am bipolar” versus “I have bipolar”, “I am depressed” versus “I have depression”. Part of the reason this language dichotomy falls short, like in the case of depression, is that mental illness can be remitting. People can and with treatment often do fall into remission from depression.


As the movement toward inclusion of mental health and mental illness grows, it is important to recognize the right individuals have in deciding how they want to relate to their mental health condition. In all cases, everyone has a right to recover and find health in their lives again, mind, body, and spirit. Avalon By The Sea is one of Southern California’s only primary mental health treatment programs. For a confidential assessment and more information on our programs, call us today: 888-958-7511

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