Identity and Language…A Barrier or Opportunity?

To what extent does the term ‘service user’ and the language of mental health get in the way of anti-stigma messages? That was a question posed over coffee by one delegate…

Maurice Donohue recently joined SAMH as a service manager for their Get Active programme, promoting physical activity in a range of settings. He has a wide ranging background in retail and sports and leisure management and is keen to bring mental health into that arena. 

Maurice has been surprised in the few weeks he has been in post that so many people with lived experience define themselves as ‘service users’ and that the term is almost universal. As a person new to mental health, he asked me why that was in mental health, given that people with other impairments seldom define themselves as users of spinal injuries services, or opthalmology services.

It isn’t a new debate, in fact Simon Bradstreet from the Scottish recovery network recently conducted research about what people prefer to be called.

This is the ranking of terms that SRN’s research showed:


As you can see, service user was low on the list of preferred terms.

So is the term helpful?

Is the identity of ‘service user’ a construct created to keep people ‘in their place’ in hospital? Is it an identity to which you can cling when mental illness and discrimination strip you of anything else?

What do you think? Do you think it matters?

Whilst we are on terminology, two other points strike me…

Firstly, some people have called for a reduction in stigma by replacing the term mental health with ‘less stigmatised’ language. Certainly there is a school of thought in workplaces for instance that ‘wellbeing’ and ‘mind maintenance’ are more friendly and accessible. What do you think? Should we claim and own the term mental health and the language of discrimination and lived experience?

Lastly, I want to ask, is mental ill health just like a broken leg? Yes, we want parity of esteem, but how many times to people ask you if your leg fracture in 1995 stops you running today?

Lets have your views on language, terminology and its place in anti-stigma work…




One thought on “Identity and Language…A Barrier or Opportunity?

  1. brokenbutbeingrepaired says:

    Language is fluid, as are people.

    I am mentally ill; as in, I was correctly diagnosed with a Psychiatric Disorder last year. I am not a service user, since I am excluded from the “services” [as in, certain diagnoses are not accepted by the “services”]. Sometimes, some of me refer to our selves as “mad” “mental” (you get the picture). That is *not* self-stigmatising, and not something I have spent a great deal of time pondering (because, yanno – getting through the next 30 secs has been the priority), but I suppose it is a case of “reclaiming” terms of abuse, and instead using them as simply “words”. Those words do not define me, but unfortunately the diagnosis does; it defines me as a collection of different selves who fragmented to ensure the survival of the physical self.

    We are all just *people* surely, and people are varied and complex (some more varied and complex than others). Via nature, nurture or a combination of the two, illness (whether physical or psychiatric) affects many “people” , many of whom will face ignorance. The one cure for ignorance is education. For outright stigma, that requires people to reflect on the misinformation they have absorbed, their perception of “illness”, “recovery” and possibly most importantly facing up to the prejudicial attitudes many people unthinkingly hold.

    “Recovery” is a term that also feels stigmatising to me. That, if not “recovered”, a person existing with a psychiatric diagnosis is not as valid, or as worthy as those who have “recovered”. That is not to say that recovery from many psychiatric diagnoses is an achievable aim which of course it is. I am just trying to point out that some of the language of “recovery” can feel invalidating to those of us who are in the “getting through the next 30 seconds” group, rather than the “all better now” one. Actually, it concerns me that people who *have* recovered may well relapse at some point; do they see themselves as “less than” they were when recovered?

    I find it sad that outright stigma and prejudice lives and breathes so strongly within all areas of the Mental Health “community” and is accepted as by so many.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s