Labeling Influences Tolerance Towards Mentally Ill

Labeling Influences Tolerance Towards Mentally IllLabeling Influences Tolerance Towards Mentally Ill

Would you call an individual with depression “mentally ill” or a “person with a mental illness”? According to a new study, the label one gives a person with such an illness can influence how they are tolerated by society.

Published in The Journal of Counseling & Development, the study found that people were less tolerant toward individuals who were described as being “mentally ill” as opposed to “people with mental illness.”

According to study coauthor Darcy Haag Granello, professor of educational studies at the Ohio State University, the findings suggest that language choice when referring to a person with a mental illness is not simply a matter of “political correctness.”

“This isn’t just about saying the right thing for appearances,” she says. “The language we use has real effects on our levels of tolerance for people with mental illness,” reported.

To reach their findings, Granello and her colleague Todd Gibbs, a graduate student in educational studies at Ohio State, enrolled three groups of participants: 221 undergraduate students, 211 non-student adults from a community sample and 269 professional counselors and counselors-in-training.

All participants completed a questionnaire called Community Attitudes Toward the Mentally Ill (CAMI).

While the subject of each statement was the same for each participant, half of the participants in each group were presented with statements that referred to “the mentally ill,” while the remaining half was presented with statements that referred to “people with mental illness.”

For example, one statement assessing participants’ attitudes toward social restrictiveness among people with a mental illness said: “The mentally ill (or ‘people with mental illness’) should be isolated from the rest of the community.”

Participants were asked to rate each statement on a five-point scale, with one representing “strongly agree” and five representing “strongly disagree.”

  Issue of ‘Person First’

Researchers found that all three groups demonstrated lower tolerance when their surveys referred to “the mentally ill” rather than “people with mental illness,” but that they were less tolerant in different ways.

Researchers believe their findings highlight the importance of “person-first” language when addressing people with mental illness.

“Person-first language is a way to honor an individual by separating their identity from any disability or diagnosis he or she might have,” explains Gibbs.

“When you say ‘people with a mental illness,’ you are emphasizing that they aren’t defined solely by their disability. But when you talk about ‘the mentally ill’ the disability is the entire definition of the person.”

The team says they were surprised to find that even counselors’ tolerance toward people with a mental illness was swayed by language choice.

“Even counselors who work every day with people who have mental illness can be affected by language,” says Granello. “They need to be aware of how language might influence their decision-making when they work with clients.”

Overall, researchers believe their findings should prompt a change in how society addresses individuals with a mental illness.