Researchers have concluded that even the smallest subtle differences in the language used when discussing mental illness can have a big impact on the tolerance levels that are seen. The study is the very first one to examine whether participants had less tolerance for those with mental illness compared to those who are mentally ill. The results were somewhat surprising. When the words mentally ill were used the participants showed less tolerance than they did when the phrase people with mental illness was used. The first phrase refers to the individual as ill while the second phrase refers to the condition of mental illness rather than the individual afflicted with these disorders. Investigators at Ohio State compared responses to two similar but different statements.
The study on mental illness and language used the statements “the mentally ill should be isolated from the community” and “people with mental illnesses should be isolated from the community.” Participants tended to agree with the first statement far more than they did the second statement even though both detailed isolating individuals who have mental disorders. Study co-author and educational studies professor Darcy Haag Granello, Ph.D. explained that “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.” The researchers concluded that the words used when discussing mental illness can influence the conversation and the outcome, and political correctness is not the only issue involved.
Ohio State educational studies graduate student Todd Gibbs worked on the research with Granello. Gibbs stated “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. 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.”