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.

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Using “mentally ill” to describe a person with mental illness reduces tolerance toward them, a new study found.

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.”

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).

Participants were presented with a set of statements that measured their attitudes toward people with a mental illness in four areas: authoritarianism, benevolence, social restrictiveness and community mental health ideology.

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 were 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.”

The 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.

Fast facts about mental illness
  • Around 1 in 5 adults in the US experience mental illness in a given year
  • Approximately 16 million adults in the US have experienced at least one episode of depression in the past year
  • Serious mental illness costs the US around $193.2 billion in lost earnings every year.

Learn more about mental health

College students, counselors and counselors-in-training were less tolerant in relation to authoritarianism and social restrictiveness when the surveys referenced “the mentally ill,” while non-student adults were less tolerant in areas of benevolence and community mental health ideology.

The 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 the personhood of 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, the researchers believe their findings should prompt a change in how society addresses individuals with a mental illness. Granello says:

I understand why people use the term ‘the mentally ill.’ It is shorter and less cumbersome than saying ‘people with mental illness.’

But I think people with mental illness deserve to have us change our language. Even if it is more awkward for us, it helps change our perception, which ultimately may lead us to treat all people with the respect and understanding they deserve.”

In April 2015, Medical News Today reported on a study that found 9 in 10 people with a mental illness report high levels of discrimination.