I am very deliberate with the words I choose when writing about people and diseases. I am very conscious to say, "a person with a cancer diagnosis," rather than, "a person with cancer." I choose this because it emphasizes the individual person over the disease. An area where word-choice is particularly important is the topic of mental illness.
Over the last few years, my personal life has been touched by a person with a significant mental illness. It has been an eye-opening and, frankly, a jaw-dropping experience. The resources and treatment options for those diagnosed with any of these diseases are simply abysmal. Not just abysmal. But shockingly, embarrassingly abysmal.
I have become much more aware of attitudes towards those with these diseases. One area which sticks out is the practice in the media of using the phrase, "the mentally ill." This term dehumanizes the individual and creates a class of "other-ness". Sadly, once a class of "others" is created it is easy to marginalize and dehumanize the group.
There is new research about the importance of the words we use in this situation. Researchers at Ohio State investigated the attitude shifts between the phrases "the mentally ill" and "people with mental illnesses." The results are shockingly clear.
"...people who received the survey using the term “the mentally ill” had significantly lower tolerance scores than those who received the survey using the term “people with mental illnesses.”
College students who received a survey with the term “the mentally ill” were significantly more likely to perceive that people who have a mental illness are an “inferior class requiring coercive handling” and that they are a “threat to society.”
This pattern was found in the sample of professional counselors and counselors-in-training. They had the highest overall levels of tolerance in the groups we studied, but they also responded with more authoritarian and more socially restrictive attitudes when they encountered the term “the mentally ill."
There are no simple answers to these illnesses. However, we can prevent creating a class of inferior and scary people by simply choosing different words.
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