October 20, 2018
Good news, test results are fine

Person First, Disease Second

by Berkeley Wellness  

Since the 1990s there has been a push among medical professionals and journalists not to label people by their illnesses or disabilities, but rather to use “person first” (or "people first") language, so that individuals are not defined solely by their conditions. For instance, rather than use the term “diabetics,” it’s preferable to say “people with diabetes.” Instead of “HIV sufferers” or “cancer patients,” it’s “people with HIV” or “people with cancer.” That may sound like political correctness and just extra words, but research shows that such “person first” language helps people feel less stigmatized and more in control of their conditions. It also helps reduce bias and other negative attitudes that may increase when people are labeled by their diseases.

This was seen in a study from Ohio State University, which focused on the use of the label “the mentally ill.” Published in the Journal of Counseling and Development, it involved 221 undergraduates, 211 non-student adults, and 269 professional counselors, all of whom took a standard survey designed to measure attitudes towards people with mental illness. The survey rated how respondents view those with mental illness in terms of whether they need to be treated in an authoritarian manner, like young children; whether they should be treated with sympathy and benevolence; and whether they are threatening and should be isolated from society. The twist was that for half of them the survey always referred to “the mentally ill,” while for the other half it said “people with mental illnesses.”

All three groups, even the counselors, showed less tolerance, on average, when the surveys referred to “the mentally ill,” though in slightly different ways. Students and counselors felt a greater need for authoritarian treatment, while other adults showed less sympathy for and benevolence toward “the mentally ill” than “people with mental illnesses.” For most participants, the difference in labels didn’t change their feelings about people with mental illnesses, but it did matter for enough of them to affect the average results on the survey.

Previous research has linked mental illness to perceptions of danger, violence, and unpredictability. According to the researchers, it’s likely that “images and beliefs about ‘the mentally ill’ are more extreme or more frightening than images associated with ‘people with mental illnesses.’ Of course, that is exactly the premise behind person-first language—that it highlights the humanity of the individual rather than the pathology.”

Also see The Stigma of Mental Illness.