Language Matters


Words matter

Words have the power to inspire, motivate and raise people up, but they also have the weight to negatively impact someone—even if it’s unintentional. As communities and cultures continue to shift, and others rebuild, so does the terminology and language used.

It’s a learning experience for everyone, not just youth, so be patient with yourself and ask questions—it’s okay to not know what you’re supposed to say in certain situations.

Let’s take a look at how you can alter your language to be inclusive and compassionate towards others.

Outdated Language

There are a number of words and phrases that may currently be said or used in your household, with friends or even at school. It is very important to know that this language is not acceptable.

Derogatory or disrespectful terms regarding areas such as gender identity, race, physical or intellectual disabilities, religion and more, are weaponized and meant to put people down for who they are.

Using this language towards someone can have detrimental effects on their overall health and wellness. According to Bullying Canada, verbal bullying (name-calling, threats, teasing, and making negative references to one’s culture/identity) is one of the most common forms of bullying among youth. These terms, whether spoken or typed online, have the power to push someone into depressive episodes, increased anxiety and in major cases, suicidal thoughts.

Making the decision to not use harmful language can also save you from getting in trouble. As social media platforms continue to grow, it is easy for people to find what you’ve previously said about someone through your online posts. The repercussions for finding offensive language could really affect your future relationships, job opportunities, etc.

Thinking before you speak is a really great, but often an ignored practice. Take a moment to pause and think to yourself if what you are wanting to say will hurt someone. Is it worth it? Even if someone said something awful to you, should you retaliate and stoop to their level?

Understanding that words have meaning is something that will be an ongoing education for all.

Adopting New Language

Readjusting your language is apart of growing up. It’s also an opportunity to learn and adapt to using respectful language when talking about certain people and areas.

A concept called, “person-first language,” focuses on the person, and doesn’t have a huge spotlight on their physical or mental condition. This is typically used for individuals living with a mental health concern or illness and substance use. Lived experience refers to previous experiences and choices of a given person, and the lessons learned from those challenges.

  • Example: An individual who lives with depression. 

Individuals and groups who use “identify-first language” are prideful of who they are and do not consider their circumstances to be a detriment.

  • Example: A deaf person.

When referring to someone in the ‘third-person,’ we use pronouns. Based on what the person identifies as, we associate a pronoun to that person.

  • Example: Steve identifies with he/him/his pronouns, so instead of “Steve went to the library,” you can say, “He went to the library.”

People often make assumptions about someone’s pronouns based on their appearance, behaviours or name. Whether it’s a correct assumption or not, this can potentially leave the person feeling distraught or devalued.

Unless you know someone’s pronouns because they have told you or they have expressed their pronouns in a public format, it is a good practice to use a gender-neutral pronoun such as they/them until you know for certain.

In all cases and no matter who you’re talking to, it is very important to ask people about their language or listen to how they address themselves.

Mental Health Language

A person is not defined by their mental health status. When talking about a person with a mental health or substance use concern, you should talk about them in ways that are encouraging—not stigmatizing.

The following link is a collection of stigmatizing words and phrases that can be replaced to be more inclusive and respectful.

Mental Health Language

Next Steps

Just like everything else, learning something new takes practice, time and patience with yourself.

As you start to adjust how you communicate with others, you may inspire other youth to do the same. By starting now, you are going into your future years with a respectful and mindful language that will be well received by those stigmatized communities.


If you cannot find someone you trust who is willing to support you, dial a crisis line right away at 403-266-HELP (4357) All crisis lines are confidential.

YouthSMART would like to thank Sagium and Kinsted Wealth for being our 2020 – 2021 website sponsor.