Study: Language and Labels May Affect Mental Health Stigma

Woman standing outside in the rainUsing person-centered language, which avoids labeling people with mental health diagnoses, can reduce stigma and change the way people view mental health issues, according to a study published in the Journal of Counseling and Development.

Person-centered language highlights the person rather than the diagnosis. For example, instead of calling people depressive or saying they are mentally ill, person-centered language advocates for the use of phrases such as “person with depression” or “child experiencing a mental health condition.” This language highlights a person’s humanity rather than a diagnosis.

How Person-Centered Language Can Reduce Stigma has long advocated for destigmatizing language, and the American Psychological Association (APA) Publication Manual similarly supports such language. However, little previous research is available on how person-centered language mediates mental health stigma.

To test how language affects perceptions of people with mental health conditions, researchers Darcy Haag Granello, an Ohio State University professor of educational studies, and coauthor Todd Gibbs, a graduate student in educational studies, enrolled three separate groups of participants in their study. Participants included 211 adults from the community, 221 undergraduate students, and 269 counselors and counselors-in-training.

Each participant completed the Community Attitudes Toward the Mentally Ill (CAMI) questionnaire, which presented participants with questions designed to measure attitudes toward people with mental health diagnoses across four areas: authoritarianism, community mental health ideology, social restrictiveness, and benevolence.

Although each participant reviewed virtually identical subjects as part of the questionnaire, half viewed statements that used stigmatizing language such as “the mentally ill.” The other half encountered statements using person-centered language, such as “person with a mental illness.”

The participants showed less tolerance for people with mental health diagnoses when the statements did not use person-centered language. The students, counselors, and counselors-in-training showed higher degrees of authoritarian and socially restricted attitudes when presented with non-person-centered language. The non-student adults who read non-person-centered statements were less benevolent toward people with mental health diagnoses. They also showed a lower community mental health ideology. This ideology is associated with less restrictive treatment, more integration, and community treatment instead of institutionalization.

How to Talk About Mental Health

Mental Health America offers the following tips for adopting language sensitive to mental health issues:

  • Avoid words such as “crazy,” “psycho,” and “lunatic.”
  • Do not label people as their diagnoses. People are not bipolar, depressive, or autistic. They are experiencing these conditions. “Person with autism” can be less stigmatizing than calling someone autistic.
  • Use the language with which the person identifies or feels most comfortable. People in mental health advocacy rarely use terms such as “patient” or “mentally ill.” They are more likely to identify as a person in recovery, therapy client, or mental health peer.


  1. Granello, D. H., & Gibbs, T. A. (2016). The power of language and labels: “The mentally ill” versus “people with mental illnesses” Journal of Counseling & Development, 94(1), 31-40. doi:10.1002/jcad.12059
  2. Person-centered language. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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  • Laurel

    February 3rd, 2016 at 1:20 PM

    This is a definitive part of the answer that has been missing.

    I think that fio some reason we are so intent on assigning labels that we forget about the person that comes underneath that label and in many ways becomes almost drowned by it. I guess that it is just our desire to assigning a role to everything not thinking how this will affect others, especially those who have been placed in a specific box.

  • N. Bailey

    February 4th, 2016 at 10:18 AM

    Well said …. in addition when reading about stigma relating to mental illness I point out that as long as sick people are put into the back of a police car and driven many miles to a hospital that will accept them (after frequently waiting hours in an ER of a hospital that will not treat them ) people are likely to be seen as some sort of serious threat . I say that is the serious reality that also contributes to stigma.

  • ellen

    February 4th, 2016 at 10:53 AM

    Great article. It is really not fair to judge someone for their actions and experiences until you have walked a mile in their shoes.

  • Lori

    February 8th, 2016 at 3:07 PM

    It is very important to recognize that we as humans are so much more than what we have been labeled by others. It might be something that we struggle with but that by no means defines us as who we really are.

  • Dorris sola

    October 21st, 2016 at 4:43 AM

    Hi, what an informative and comprehensive article. Helped me a lot with my dilemma. Love the facts you have mentioned. Totally true!

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