Reframing Speech to Empower Safe Spaces 


30 August 2023 

Researcher and Writer: Tobey Fhar Isaac B. Calayo
Reviewer: Azie Marie Liban
Editor: K Ballesteros   
Moderator: Tobey Fhar Isaac B. Calayo
Graphic Artists: Jia Moral, Ian Stephen Velez

Reframing one’s speech requires understanding language – how it is formed and how people use it.  Stigma is not exclusively a mental health issue, and it is also an issue of language – how it is permeated, words act as a gate, either as a motivator or a barrier towards seeking help [7]. 

Words in our brain process in tones and context. These words can develop in a cultural bubble of shared meaning in social contexts, and while this may appear traditional, they can still be too emotionally charged for use in modern and progressive contexts [7]. 


We should avoid [7]: 

  • Calling someone who is clean, tidy, and organized as someone who lives with OCD – this is not the same as living with the condition.
  • Calling someone who experiences natural and daily mood changes as someone with bipolar disorder.
  • Describing our feelings by saying ‘I’m depressed’ when our mood leans towards sadness, the natural feeling of being sad is not immediately living with depression. 
  • Calling someone anorexic when there are obvious weight changes diminishes the complexity of eating disorders people experience everyday. 
  • Calling someone psycho for naturally losing temper in difficult and pressing situations. 
  • Calling someone insane or hysterical for a valid upsetting cause. 

The goal is to use language to help people drive to their goals and to make the path clearer for them. Some words are outdated, while some are preferred over others. Like Mark Twain said, “the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” 


Language is a powerful tool that helps us contextualize and visualize the world around us; it gives us the capacity to communicate information and feelings. When talking about mental health, we need to be cautious and always keep in mind how our receivers understand the message [1]. 


People can also reframe the way they speak to become more empathetic.  For example: for people who experience losing their temper over things naturally, it is easier to connect with them by validating the reason for their upset feelings. Listening and accepting help the most [12]. 


People can either use person-first language or identity-first language [1]: 


Person-First Language focuses on their abilities rather than their limitations, which means that language centers the individual before their condition.  For example:  rather than calling someone depressed, in person-first or person-centered language, one may call them ‘a person who lives with depression.’ This humanizes the person and removes pre-connotations about their condition, thus reducing all-together possible stigma [9]. This promotes autonomy and a more positive identity [10].


On the other hand, some people with mental health conditions may prefer Identity-First language. Some people who have developed groups and identities around their condition have advocated for using Identity-First Language for certain conditions and disabilities, as their uniqueness is central to their identity.  People in rehabilitation often use identity-first language as their mental health condition is prominent to their identity [1]; however, the usage of this language use is also a political matter. People in other countries often would use ‘disabled persons’ to account for debilitating governance towards them by society and the community. Their disability is not a notion of their physical or emotional limitation and is not pathological — however, it signifies how their country or how laws disable them from their rights [11][1]. 


Using either person-first language or identity-first language is complex.  The people whose lives are attached to the conditions should always be considered; your audience also needs to be considered when speaking. Language communication of people living with conditions means that we want to capture their lives and experiences. The main priority is their own preference: a person can always ask and research beforehand to better contextualize communities of people. 

Session Questions: 

  1. What conversational language advice can you share that has helped in your daily life? 
  2. How can we use proper language to respectfully talk about mental health in the community?
  3. What policy changes do we need in our spaces of livelihood or in our communities to gear towards inclusive language in community-building?


[1] Hogg Foundation for Mental Health
No Date
Language Matters in Mental Health 


[2] American Psychiatry Association 
No Date 
Words Matter: Reporting Mental Health Conditions 

[3] Daniel Weaver
September 28, 2016 
The Language of Safe Spaces 

[4] Nicole Cardoza
December 1, 2019 
Reframing Language Around Safety and Acceptance in Studios and Classrooms 

[5] Travis Marsh
No Date
Using Conscious Language to Build Spaces 

[6] Carly Spina
July 23, 2021
Creating & Nurturing Linguistically Inclusive Spaces 

[7] Mental Health Foundation
May 2, 2019 
Why the language we use to describe mental health matters 

[8] Shannon Wooldridge, National Institute of Health
April 12, 2023
Writing Respectfully: Person-First and Identity-First Language 

[9] Future Learn
Person-first or Identity-first? 

[10] KidSense Therapy Group
No Date
An Evolving Mindset: Person-First vs Identity-First Language 

No Date
Reasonable Adjustments for Disabled Workers 

[12] Mind Org UK 
No Date


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