Why Person First Matters

If you’re on Twitter, you may have noticed a hashtag called #mentalillnessfeelslike. It’s an awareness campaign begun by Mental Health America and it brilliantly shows how mental health conditions are different for everyone who experiences them. Nearly 20 percent of Americans have some kind of mental health disorder. That’s 1 in 5 people and the chances that you know someone experiencing mental illness – a family member, a friend, a neighbor, a coworker, or yourself – are very high.



Yet despite the effort and resources we have committed to suicide prevention, the Centers for Disease Control recently issued a report showing that since 1999, the national suicide rate has increased by 24 percent. This is alarming on so many levels. While data is critical in advocating for advances in treatment, funding and policy initiatives, it is often true that data and statistics alone won’t move the dial.


The most powerful force to move that dial are the voices of the individuals we serve and their families. Time and again these voices are silent due to the stigma and shame that surrounds having a mental illness or an addiction.  Here at Bournewood we strive to shift this course by using person or patient centered approaches, seeking to understand our patient’s experience, and by encouraging full engagement and responsibility by our patients in their own recovery.  As a system we must also work to have our services and policies informed by individuals and families served.


For every person, there will always be a different description, feeling and experience of their mental ilness. We in the behavioral health service delivery world often talk about these individualized experiences with a certain terminology: person-centered care or approach to treatments. While the “Mental Illness Feels Like” campaign is an empowering awareness builder, it also confirms that in mental health treatment, policy and legislative advocacy, the person experiencing any behavioral health condition must come first and must be heard.


Here’s a few sample #mentalillnessfeelslike Tweets that paint the picture:

#mentalillnessfeelslike all the color has been sucked from the world. Everything is gray and two-dimensional. And on the rare occasion I can see beauty, it's too far away to feel.

#mentalillnessfeelslikeconsistently feeling you have done something wrong, even when you haven't. Your brain seems like a black cloud.

#mentalillnessfeelslikeisolation. the more you try to explain what's going on in your head, the more you realize that no one understands.


“feels like a boa constrictor slowly squeezing the life out of me.”


Person First is our gold standard at Bournewood. We always strive to remember that the words used in the clinical world may not be the same words a person would use to describe what they are feeling. It takes understanding, time and compassion to get behind the words a person says in crisis to get ahead of their condition and create the space for real recovery.


The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration describes the person-centered approach this way: It means people living with mental health and substance use conditions have control over their services, including the amount, duration, and scope of services, as well as choice of providers. Person-centered care also is respectful and responsive to the cultural, linguistic, and other social and environmental needs of the individual.


This approach in no way diminishes the role or responsibility of the treatment team; rather it encourages shared decision making along the path towards recovery.


You can read more about person-first treatment approaches in this excellent article entitled “Psychiatry Embraces Patient-Centered Care.”



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