The One Phrase You Should Never Use to Describe Mental Illness

It can do more harm than good.

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If you or a loved one struggles with mental illness, then you know that the subject can require sensitivity and compassion—especially when it comes to the language you use. In fact, a new study from Ohio State University showed that the term “mentally ill” was often met with less tolerance compared to the term “mental illness.” To avoid stigma, the study authors suggest that people should avoid the former term, as it could create unfair biases.

Study participants ranged from college students to professional counselors. They were given a survey of 40 statements and assessed how much they agreed or disagreed with each item. The survey, known as the Community Attitudes Toward the Mentally Ill, has been around since 1979. The results were published in the Journal of Counseling & Development.

Researchers found that when statements included the term “mentally ill,” participants exhibited stigma; for example, more participants agreed, “mentally ill people should be isolated from the community,” as opposed to the statement, “people with mental illnesses should be isolated from the community.” The two statements are almost identical, save for the language used to reference mental illness. Every group, even the professional counselors, were affected by the language change.

Researchers suspect this is because the term “mental illness” is a “person-first” term, meaning it separates the individual from their diagnosis. In the 1990s, professional publications began using “person first” language to describe disabilities.

"When you say 'people with a mental illness,' you are emphasizing that they aren't defined solely by their disability,” lead researcher Todd Gibbs said in a statement. “But when you talk about 'the mentally ill,' the disability is the entire definition of the person.”

While researchers say it’s too early to draw major conclusions, the results do point to a need to change the language around mental illness—especially in the media. The term “mentally ill” may be less cumbersome than “people with mental illness,” but it’s obvious that terminology plays a major role in tolerance.

"This isn't just about saying the right thing for appearances,” researcher Darcy Haag Granello said in a statement. “The language we use has real effects on our levels of tolerance for people with mental illness."