Words matter in compassionate care. This is particularly true in caring for patients with behavioral health disorders, but our words matter to every patient in every care setting. 

And it’s not only what we say to patients and their families that matters but how we talk with care teams in private. Many times we may not even realize we are being insensitive or spreading stigma. 

Earlier this year, the AHA launched a series of posters called People Matter, Words Matter with the aim of reducing behavioral health stigma in and beyond health care settings. These downloadable and printable documents were developed with the help of subject matter experts. They provide examples of stigmatizing statements we might encounter and offer guidance on how to respectfully respond — that is, words and phrases that do not stigmatize.

Studies show that many people with psychiatric or substance use disorders (or both) feel they are being judged both outside and inside the health care system. Sadly, this can lead people to avoid, delay or stop seeking treatment. 

The inaugural People Matter, Words Matter poster calls on us to see the patient as a person first, not an embodiment of mental illness. We wouldn’t say someone is heart disease. Likewise, we should say someone has schizophrenia, not the person is schizophrenic. And while it may seem simple and straightforward when examples are in front of us, it takes time to train our brains to correct words we’ve used for years. We are in a compassionate profession of constant learning and evolving science, and this area of care must continue to advance. Accountability and mindfulness are key.

As health care providers, we must lead the way in reducing harmful stigmas that burden behavioral health patients — and sometimes hinder our clinical effectiveness. Choosing the right words can have a positive, and even lifesaving, impact on a person’s life.

Rod Hochman, M.D.
AHA Chair


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