Why labels matter so much for people with mental illness

February 18, 2016 

We at Future Health are first and foremost concerned with helping people build healthy, happier, lives.  This includes people who suffer with mental illness, therefore we found this following article published in the Journal and Counseling and Development about language involving mental health to be extremely important.  Please read the following article to understand that something as simple as the language you use about mental illness may affect the treatment or perception individuals have around it.  


People show less tolerance to those referred to as ‘the mentally ill’, new research finds.

The better terminology to use is “people with mental illness”.

The emphasis, then, is on the word ‘people’ rather than the label of mental illness.

Mr. Todd Gibbs, who co-authored the study, said:

“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.”


The study found that even experienced counselors were more likely to be prejudiced against those referred to as ‘the mentally ill’.

Professor Darcy Haag Granello, who co-authored the study, said:

“This isn’t just about saying the right thing for appearances.

The language we use has real effects on our levels of tolerance for people with mental illness.

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.”


Incredibly, it’s been 20 years since ‘person-first’ language was suggested, but no one has formally tested the effects until now.

Professor Granello said:

“It is shocking to me that there hasn’t been research on this before.

It is such a simple study.

But the results show that our intuition about the importance of person-first language was valid.”


The research involved students, professional counselors and counselors in training, who also succumbed to the bias.

Professor Granello concluded:

“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.”


Journal of Counseling & Development