Written by Jackie Edwards
Inclusive language — a communication style that avoids using assumptions, words, or phrases that stereotype, exclude, or offend people — is vital to creating a safe and comfortable mental healthcare setting for LGBTQ+ individuals. Unfortunately, sexual minorities are more likely than heterosexual people to be dissatisfied with mental health service providers, a recent study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology reveals. This dissatisfaction may result from therapists who primarily focus on psychopathology without considering cultural context, which also includes neglecting inclusive language. By adopting inclusive language, mental health practitioners can better ensure everyone feels seen and heard, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Stress, anger, and delayed help-seeking: the impacts of non-inclusive language
When mental health providers assume their clients are either heterosexual, cisgender, or have innate sex characteristics that meet conventional medical understandings of female or male bodies, LGBTQ+ patients are usually directly harmed as a result. For example, a number of systematic reviews of the barriers to accessing mental healthcare for LGBTQ+ patients have determined that the use of non-inclusive language by practitioners results in feelings of stress, anxiety, and anger in patients, as well as a fear of poor treatment, and a fear of rejection. In turn, LGBTQ+ patients tend to initially put off seeking help, which — in addition to exacerbating feelings of unhappiness — can also hamper the success of long-term recovery. And, unless they’re matched with an inclusive-minded mental health care practitioner, LGBTQ+ patients are also less likely to disclose their sexual orientation.
On the other hand, inclusive language encourages LGBTQ+ patients to disclose their sexuality with higher levels of trust in the practitioner — they can be confident the service affirms LGBTQ+ people. Sexuality disclosure is also an important way practitioners can understand the patient’s unique health and social care needs, as well as gain vital information on their support networks.
Person-centered care: tailoring language to each unique patient
Inclusive language is also important when it comes to discussing mental health issues with patients. Not everyone is able to articulate their thoughts easily — perhaps they don’t have a clear grasp of the thoughts they’re trying to verbalize, or they’re not used to talking with someone one-on-one. With enough time and patience, patients will find it easier to open up and express themselves. And, since a mental health journey looks different for everyone, the language mental health practitioners use should reflect this fact. So, rather than making assumptions and generalizations about the patient’s experiences, it’s important to actively listen and give them the time needed to open up about their unique lived experiences. By using inclusive language free from labels, individuals and their experiences are then better understood and respected. For example, either neutral or positive language should be used in place of derogatory or demeaning terms. Saying “mental health condition” instead of “mental illness” is a simple yet effective way to minimize the negative stigma associated with the latter phrase.
Using correct pronouns
The study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology also found that LGBTQ+ patients value mental healthcare practitioners who skillfully demonstrate affirming practices — most notably, using correct pronouns. Ideally, the practitioner should ask the patient how they identify rather than assuming identities. For example, rather than saying “hello, sir,” a simple “hello” is a more inclusive choice — or, “Hello, my name is Julie. My pronouns are she/her. How should I address you?”. Similarly, it’s also just as valuable for healthcare practitioners to avoid making heteronormative assumptions, such as assumptions surrounding the partner’s sexual orientation or gender identity. “If [clients] prefer to use pronouns, ask them when you first meet them how they would like to be addressed, seriously consider what questions you ask before you do as they can come off as invasive,” a study participant, a sexual minority, explains. So, practitioners should become aware of the assumptions they may have about presenting patients and ensure they start using more inclusive language to create a welcoming, affirming therapy environment.
Inclusive language is essential for maintaining a safe and comfortable mental healthcare setting for LGBTQ+ patients. When practitioners demonstrate inclusive attitudes through the use of inclusive language, LGBTQ+ patients are more likely to feel supported and uplifted and less likely to feel alienated.