The Power of People-First Language in Trauma-Informed Organizations

October 3, 2023

In recent years, there has been a significant shift in the way trauma-informed organizations talk about and approach trauma, and for good reason. The rise of trauma-informed care and practices has led to a greater understanding of how trauma affects individuals and the importance of creating safe and supportive environments for healing. At the heart of this shift is the recognition that the words we use matter, and that’s where people-first language comes into play.

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What is people-first language?

People-first language is a linguistic tool that emphasizes the person before their condition, disability, or trauma. It places individuals at the forefront of conversations and interactions, fostering empathy, respect, and dignity. In the context of trauma-informed organizations, the use of people-first language is not just a matter of semantics; it’s a vital component of creating an environment that promotes healing and recovery.

Before delving into the significance of people-first language, it’s essential to grasp the concept of trauma-informed organizations. Trauma-informed care is an approach that acknowledges the widespread impact of trauma on individuals’ lives and aims to create a culture of safety, trust, and empowerment. Trauma-informed organizations, whether they are healthcare facilities, schools, social service agencies, or businesses, adopt principles and practices that prioritize the well-being of those they serve.

At Palmer Home, our very own Whole Child Initiative seeks to provide a trauma-informed lens through which to provide out-of-home care to children and teens in need of hope and healing. Whole Child informs every aspect of our work, from the service lines we provide designed to serve each family’s unique needs to the language we do and do not use to protect the stories of those we serve.

Key principles of trauma-informed care include:

  1. Safety: Creating a physically and emotionally safe environment for individuals to disclose and process their experiences.
  2. Trustworthiness: Building trust with clients, customers, or employees by ensuring transparency and consistency in interactions.
  3. Choice: Respecting and honoring the choices and autonomy of individuals, recognizing that they are experts in their own lives.
  4. Collaboration: Engaging individuals as active participants in their healing journey and involving them in decision-making processes.
  5. Empowerment: Fostering resilience and promoting strengths-based approaches to healing.

The Role of Language in Trauma-Informed Care

Language is a powerful tool that can either facilitate or hinder the implementation of trauma-informed care principles. The way we communicate with and about individuals who have experienced trauma can have a profound impact on their well-being and their perception of the organization’s commitment to their healing. This is where people-first language comes into play.

People-first language prioritizes the individual’s identity and humanity over their trauma or condition. It emphasizes the person before their diagnosis or experience, acknowledging that they are more than their past or their struggles. This language shift can be transformative in trauma-informed organizations for several compelling reasons.

1. People-First Language Promotes Dignity and Respect

Using people-first language sends a clear message that individuals who have experienced trauma are valued and respected. It reaffirms their humanity and dignity, counteracting the stigmatization and marginalization that can often accompany discussions of trauma. By recognizing the person first, we communicate that they are not defined by their trauma, but rather, they are unique individuals with their own strengths, stories, and potential.

2. People-First Language Reduces Stigma and Shame

Trauma is often surrounded by stigma and shame, which can be significant barriers to seeking help and healing. When organizations use language that places the person first, it contributes to reducing these negative emotions. People are more likely to reach out for support when they feel that they will be met with understanding and compassion rather than judgment and condemnation.

3. People-First Language Enhances Empathy and Understanding

Empathy is a cornerstone of trauma-informed care. By using people-first language, organizations encourage empathy among staff, clients, and the broader community. When we frame discussions in a way that highlights the individual’s humanity, it becomes easier for others to connect with their experiences and offer support. This connection fosters a sense of community and solidarity that is invaluable in the healing process.

4. People-First Language Supports Empowerment and Choice

Trauma-informed care emphasizes the importance of empowering individuals to make choices about their own lives and recovery. People-first language aligns with this principle by respecting individuals’ autonomy and agency. It acknowledges that they have the right to define their own identities and narratives, rather than having their experiences imposed upon them by others.

5. People-First Language Shifts Organizational Culture

The adoption of people-first language is not just an individual practice; it can lead to a profound shift in organizational culture. When an organization consistently uses such language, it signals a commitment to trauma-informed principles and sets a standard for respectful and compassionate communication. This cultural shift can have a ripple effect, influencing the behavior and attitudes of everyone within the organization.

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Examples of People-First Language in Practice

To better understand the practical application of people-first language in trauma-informed organizations, let’s consider some examples:

  1. Instead of saying, “She’s a trauma survivor,” say, “She’s a person who has experienced trauma.”
  2. Instead of labeling someone as “a victim of abuse,” say, “Someone who has experienced abuse.”
  3. Rather than referring to “mentally ill individuals,” use “individuals living with a mental health condition.”
  4. Instead of saying, “He’s a drug addict,” say, “He’s a person in recovery from substance use.”
  5. Instead of labeling someone as “homeless,” use “someone experiencing homelessness.”
  6. Instead of labeling an individual as “diabetic,” we can say “she is a person with diabetes.”

These examples demonstrate how simple shifts in language can center the individual’s identity and experiences rather than reducing them to their struggles or conditions.

Encountering Challenges and Resistance to People-First Language

While people-first language is a powerful tool for promoting trauma-informed care, it is not without its challenges and resistance. Some individuals and organizations may struggle with adopting people-first language for various reasons:

  1. Habit: People may be accustomed to using language that labels or defines individuals by their conditions or experiences. Breaking these habits can be challenging, but it is essential for creating a trauma-informed environment.
  2. Fear of Political Correctness: Some may view people-first language as overly politically correct or an unnecessary linguistic shift. However, it’s crucial to recognize that this approach is rooted in empathy, respect, and dignity.
  3. Lack of Awareness: Not everyone may be aware of the significance of people-first language and its connection to trauma-informed care. Education and awareness-raising efforts can help overcome this barrier.
  4. Fear of Being Patronizing: There is a concern that using people-first language may come across as patronizing or forced. It’s essential to strike a balance by using the language naturally and authentically, without overemphasizing it.
  5. Resistance to Change: Like any organizational change, adopting people-first language may encounter resistance from staff or stakeholders who are resistant to change. Leadership and education are critical in addressing this challenge.

Overcoming these challenges and promoting the use of people-first language requires a concerted effort at both the individual and organizational levels. It starts with raising awareness, providing education and training, and creating a culture that values empathy and respect.

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