Why Words Matter in Mental Health Care

Available with English captions and subtitles in Spanish.

No one wants to be known by a medical diagnosis or defined by symptoms. Describing someone by their condition can be perceived as labeling or stigmatizing and does not encourage patients to explore their abilities and strengths. By incorporating recovery-oriented practice into psychiatric care, patients can be empowered to leverage hope and resilience to create a healthy and meaningful life.

Audience Questions

Nathaniel Van Kirk, PhD, provides an overview of recovery-oriented practice frameworks, offers advice on language that communicates hope and acceptance, and answers audience questions about the integration of recovery-oriented practice into clinical care.

  • How can we help someone recognize that they need help, particularly after experiencing a trauma?
  • If we’re a provider, how do we talk to patients about the “right to fail”? Many people see it as: If a treatment doesn’t work for them, it’s a setback or failure, not a step in a different direction. How can we reframe that?
  • How do I become a peer specialist?
  • Can you give some specific examples of positive language to use with family members that would encourage them and give them hope for the future?
  • Could you talk a little bit about using peer support for youths? I’m curious about using a young person as support for a young patient—I see the benefits but worry about utilizing someone who may be retriggered or retraumatized. Is there any evidence base for having that type of peer support for minors?
  • Do you have any strategies or advice for encouraging empowerment in patients who are struggling with learned helplessness and/or self-sabotaging, maladaptive behaviors?
  • What do you advise when someone is in a position where shared-decision-making isn’t possible, such as, a minor seeking care, or someone who has a health care proxy making decisions for them?
  • What do you suggest we do if we make a mistake with language? Do you have tips for ways to apologize and start re-righting the ship?
  • I recognize that my social circles aren’t being cognizant of the language they’re using. Do you have advice for how to introduce these language-oriented concepts to them?
  • How, as a person, can I keep an eye out for what I’m subconsciously implying through the words I’m using? How do I start disrupting the cycle of unhelpful language?
  • Do you have any evidence on the impact of individuals describing the symptoms they’re experiencing vs. labeling themselves with a condition? For example, “I’m manic,” vs. “I’m not sleeping, I’m feeling overwhelmed…”
  • Any advice for ways to come up with language if the patient is struggling to find the right wording? For example, I’m having a hard time with describing my “brain disruption,” but my therapist and I don’t love the word “schizoaffective.”
  • Any specific guides, resources, books, etc., that you suggest we read to help us better understand—and utilize—person-centered language?

The information discussed is intended to be educational and should not be used as a substitute for guidance provided by your health care provider. Please consult with your treatment team before making any changes to your care plan.


You may find this additional information useful:

About Dr. Van Kirk

Nathaniel Van Kirk, PhD, is the coordinator of inpatient group therapy at McLean Hospital and the coordinator of clinical assessment at McLean’s OCD Institute. He is a member of the hospital’s Patient and Family Advisory Committee and Interdisciplinary Recovery Oriented Practice Committee, and also serves as the site facilitator for McLean’s Schwartz Rounds Committee.

Dr. Van Kirk’s clinical research focuses on the role of motivation across treatment and the impact of trauma on care outcomes. He also works to promote innovative methods to assess and conceptualize recovery.

Learn more about Dr. Van Kirk.

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