Understanding Mental Illness Identity


When a young person has a mental illness, it has a big effect on their daily life. Managing and recovering from mental health disorders can take a lot of time and energy. Mental health disorders may affect their relationships, school or work, and plans for the future.

But this doesn’t mean that a young person is defined by their mental health disorder. Young people have many strengths, assets, and aspects of their personality other than their mental illness

When it comes to mental illness identity, there are two main approaches to speaking about and understanding how a young person relates to their mental health disorder. These are known as the person-first approach and the identity-first approach. Both approaches can be empowering in different ways and a young person may prefer one or the other.

Taking a Person-First Approach

The person-first approach to mental illness identity is, to a large extent, a response to mental health stigma. Mental illness has a long history of stigmatisation. People with mental illnesses were – and still are – stereotyped as unreliable, helpless, and irresponsible, even though none of these things are true. 

Even medical professionals sometimes still hold misconceptions about mental health disorders, believing that recovery is difficult or unlikely when, in reality, most people recover from mental illness.

Stigma surrounding mental health conditions historically led to people with mental illness being defined by their condition, labelled with certain characteristics, and discriminated against or excluded simply because of their mental health.

In response to this stigma and discrimination, professionals and mental health activists pushed forward the person-first approach to mental health. Rather than defining a person by their mental illness, the person-first approach appreciates the individuality of every person and their varying experiences of the condition. It emphasises that a person with a mental illness is, first and foremost, a person and that their mental illness is only one part of their identity.

The person-first approach also helps young people to distance themselves from the stigma and stereotypes tied to mental health conditions. Young people who identify with their mental illness may be more likely to internalise stigma, believing themselves to be inadequate or unable to recover. This can affect their self-esteem, self-worth, and management of their condition.

Research shows that people who identify as depressed have lower well-being and conform more to the norms of ‘depressed people’. On the other hand, people who distance themselves from their mental illness show greater self-esteem and fewer depressive symptoms.

An Alternative Conception with Identity First

While many young people find that a person-first approach helps them to value and appreciate themselves, some young people are empowered by putting their mental health identity first.

An identity-first approach reclaims phrases like “I am depressed” and “mentally ill person” as an identity that should be valued and recognised by society, rather than discriminated against. Young people may identify with their mental illness to show themselves and others that mental illness is not something to hide or be ashamed of, but an experience or way of interacting with the world that deserves acknowledgement and support. 

Managing a mental illness also takes a lot of time and energy, and some young people want this to be acknowledged. They may feel like their mental illness is an important part of their identity – but not a negative one.

Research shows that challenging stigma through activism is associated with fewer depressive symptoms among individuals with serious mental illness. By reclaiming their mental health identity, young people can reject negative stereotypes of being mentally ill, building their self-confidence and self-worth.

Conceptualising Disability

When mental health problems have a long-term effect on a young person’s day-to-day life, it can be considered a disability. Conversations around disability identity also involve both person-first and identity-first approaches. 

In recent years, many disability activists have embraced an identity-first approach to disability. They assert that disability is not an inadequacy, misfortune, or bodily or mental impairment. Instead, it’s a social, cultural, and political experience of an unequal distribution of power and resources that can cause challenges in the daily lives of disabled people.

Disability isn’t a deviation from a ‘normal’ but an aspect of human diversity. Society should be structured to include disabled people and enable an equal experience of life, rather than discriminate against or exclude. 

Using Language: Letting Young People Choose

When choosing whether to use person-first language or identity-first language with young people, it’s important to let each young person decide. If you’re unsure which words to use when you speak with them, you can always ask.

If you’re speaking about mental health disorders without reference to a specific individual, person-first language is usually preferred. On the other hand, when you’re speaking about neurodiversity, neurodevelopmental disorders, and disorders that are not mental health conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder, identity-first language is usually encouraged.

The Wave Clinic: Specialist Recovery Programs for Young People

The Wave Clinic is a residential treatment space dedicated to adolescents and young adults. We provide specialist mental health support for eating disorders, borderline personality disorder, and other mental health concerns. We deliver our programs with sensitivity and care, driven by our core values of fairness and inclusivity.

Our whole-person approach offers more than just clinical care. We aim to make a difference in the lives of young people through education, community responsibility, and enriching experiences. Our programs support young people to plan and build fulfilling futures, developing the skills they need to follow their dreams.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our programs, get in touch today.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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Low angle view of a group of multiracial friends standing on a circle, smiling and embracing

Understanding Mental Illness Identity

When a young person has a mental illness, it has a big effect on their daily life. Managing and recovering from mental health disorders can take a lot of time and energy. Mental health disorders may affect their relationships, school or work, and plans for the future.

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