Even subtle differences in how one refers to people with mental illness can affect their attitudes towards such people, says a study.
According to the researchers, individuals showed less tolerance toward people who were called to as “the mentally ill” when compared to those referred to as “people with mental illness”.
For example, participants were more likely to agree with the statement “the mentally ill should be isolated from the community” than the almost identical statement “people with mental illnesses should be isolated from the community.”
“The language we use has real effects on our levels of tolerance for people with mental illness,” said Darcy Haag Granello, professor at Ohio State University.
“Everyone – including the media, policymakers and the general public – need to change how they refer to people with mental illness,” he added.
The push to change how society refers to people with mental illness began in the 1990s when several professional publications proposed the use of what they called “person-first” language when talking about people with disabilities or chronic conditions.
Person-first language is a way to honour the personhood of an individual by separating their identity from any disability or diagnosis he or she might have.
“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,” added Todd Gibbs, graduate student at the Ohio State.
The language choice should not be viewed just as an issue of “political correctness,” revealed the study published in the Journal of Counseling and Development.
The research involved three groups of people: 221 undergraduate students, 211 non-student adults and 269 professional counsellors.
The participants were given Community Attitudes Toward the Mentally Ill (CAMI) — a 40-item survey designed to measure people’s attitudes toward people with diagnosable mental illness.