Words matter when talking about mental health
Person-first language helps improve conversations

MADISON, Wis.—April 20, 2023— When talking about mental illnesses, it's important to note the disease is not the person, and the person is not the disease. A person may have to deal with a mental health condition, but it does not define that person. People are so much more than a mental illness.

“I believe that words have power and we should use them carefully, respectfully. Referring to a person who has mental illness as a whole being who happens to be coping with something that is causing them pain affords them more than just respect," Dr. Joelle Vlahakis, Contractor Medical Director for WPS Government Health Administrators, said.

The National Alliance on Mental Health has shared an infographic that contains a list of what words to use and which ones to avoid when talking about mental health, which can be downloaded at namiwisconsin.org/mental-health-language/. It includes the following tips:


Person who lives with a mental illness

The mentally ill

A person who lives with schizophrenia


Lives with, has, or experiences

Suffers from

Experiencing psychosis

Psychotic break

Intellectual/developmental disability


When someone views a person negatively because the person has a mental health condition, that's called a stigma. A stigma is based on a lack of understanding or fear, and it can lead to discrimination. Decreasing stigma through language helps increase support and awareness for people living with a mental illness.

Person-first language can help fight stigmas. It places the emphasis on the individual rather than a person's diagnosis or condition. Someone may have a disorder, but that person is also a neighbor, parent, sibling, professional, friend, colleague, and more.

“You would never define yourself by one place you have lived or one haircut you had," Dr. Vlahakis said. “Person-first language is a way for us to demonstrate true empathy and compassion because it refers to a person's entire self, not simply the part that hurts them right now. It can seem a very subtle shift at first. Referring to someone first and the illness second assists everyone to see themselves beyond their pain—and that itself is therapeutic."

About WPS Health Solutions®

Wisconsin Physicians Service Insurance Corporation (WPS Health Solutions), founded in 1946, is a nationally regarded benefits administrator for a variety of U.S. government programs and a leading not-for-profit health insurer in Wisconsin. WPS Health Solutions serves active-duty and retired military personnel, seniors, individuals, and families in Wisconsin, across the U.S., and around the world. WPS Health Solutions, headquartered in Madison, Wis., has more than 2,700 employees. Within the enterprise, there are three divisions: WPS Government Health Administrators, WPS Military and Veterans Health, and WPS Health Insurance/WPS Health Plan/EPIC Specialty Benefits. For more information, please visit wpshealthsolutions.com.