TOOLS FOR TRANSFORMING LANGUAGE | Behavioral Healthcare Executive Skip to content Skip to navigation


April 1, 2006
by Lori Ashcraft, PhD and William A. Anthony, PhD
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The way we describe people affects how we treat them

Many of us undoubtedly have thumbed through thousands of medical records and charts. In our more existential moments, we might have asked ourselves, “What is all of this? Does it really mean anything? Is it really necessary?” If we really are committed to service transformation, the way we work needs to be questioned and probably changed.

A few months ago we visited a person involuntarily brought into a crisis program. Unclear about why she was being held against her will, she asked what had been written in her chart. The first notation was “clt is 32yo, cauc F, schiz.” We thumbed through pages of progress notes, social histories, and assessments, and as we read some of the less judgmental comments to her, she began to sob:

This is so upsetting because they have it all mixed up. This is not the way things happened. Also, the way they describe me is not who I am at all. How could they know me this long and never even know who I am?

When we write about people, are we focusing on their potential for recovery, or are we bogged down in describing their problems, using shortcut code language that only means something to us and others like us? Do we describe who the person is and what she needs from us to begin, or continue, her recovery process? Or is this just a glorified record-keeping/billing process that satisfies auditors and insurance payers?

“Person-first language” is a concept that emerged from the disability-rights movement, and it affirms that individuals are first and foremost

people, not diagnoses, or clients (“clt”) or patients (“pt”). Person-first language is more than just being politically correct. It frames the way we experience the people we are serving, because our use of language strongly influences our thoughts. To quote George Orwell, “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

Language is a core element in developing recovery- oriented services. The same worn-out language will not help us move toward better recovery outcomes and might even hold us in old work patterns. Questioning and changing the seemingly inconsequential elements, such as language, will free us up to move ahead with our service transformation efforts.

What does transformed language look like? Let's examine how we can transform “clt is 32yo, cauc F, schiz.” When we use “clt” or “pt” to refer to a person, we distance ourselves from acknowledging her as a real person—a person just like us, but with extra life challenges. Staff have told us that when they begin to refer to people by name in charts, they immediately feel more connected to them as persons and see them as partners in recovery.

The next part (“32yo, cauc F”) tells us nothing about a person's strengths and abilities or potential for recovery, yet such terms usually appear first, implying that these are the most important factors about the person. Of course, demographic information needs to be captured. But what's more important in records is information related to recovery (all too often omitted), such as “Richard wants to find a job” or “Jane hopes to go back to school, and is asking for help in managing symptoms and issues related to her diagnosis so she can move ahead with her plans.”

TABLE. Person-centered alternatives to commonly used words and phrases

Worn-out language

Language that promotes acceptance, respect, and uniqueness

you're just

you are more than


not him/herself today; he/she is experiencing symptoms


resourceful; really trying to get help




might not be confident about personal choices or decisions; afraid


beginning to think for him/herself; taking personal responsibility


aware of rights


not open to; chooses not to; has own ideas

frequent flyer

gives us many opportunities to intervene and support


what a person looks like when doing well


has other interests; bored; doesn't know how to begin


unaware of capabilities


unaware of opportunities


has high hope and expectations of self

user of the system

resourceful; good self-advocate

druggie; crackhead; junkie

person with an addiction or diagnosis of substance abuse

high-functioning, low-functioning, dangerous, danger to others/danger to self (DTO/DTS)

person is showing these issues and characteristics