Parson to Person November 2017

“The ‘Mentally Ill’ or…?”

For years I referred to people with a mental illness as “the mentally ill.” When I was gently told that the “correct” term was “people with a mental illness” (or “people living with a mental illness”), I did change my language but couldn’t see why it might make a difference. (Plus, it took longer to say!) But then I read some of the research on these terms and found out why the words we use make a difference.

In a study of about about 700 people attending a meeting of the American Counseling Association (some were professional counselors, some were counseling students, some were non-student adults interested in counseling), they found something very interesting. All the participants answered a questionnaire to measure their attitudes toward people with mental illness. But half were given the survey with the words “the mentally ill,” and half were given the same survey but with the words “people with mental illnesses.” Those who got the one with “the mentally ill” tended to be more judgmental and less tolerant–even though most of these people were in the counseling field!

For example, participants who read a statement like “The mentally ill should be isolated from the rest of the community” were more likely to agree with that statement than participants who read (the functionally equivalent) “People with mental illnesses should be isolated from the rest of the community.” The same was true with “The mentally ill need the same kind of control and discipline as a young child,” versus “People with mental illness need the same kind of control and discipline as a young child.” And also “Having the mentally ill living within residential neighborhoods might be good therapy but the risks to residents are too great,” versus “Having people with mental illness living within residential neighborhoods,” etc. So, it’s not simply a matter of political correctness.

So, it’s not simply a matter of political correctness. As one of the authors of the study (Darcy Granello, professor of educational studies at Ohio State University) put it: “I understand why people use the term ‘the mentally ill.’ It is shorter and less cumbersome than saying ‘people with mental illness.’ But I think people with mental illness deserve to have us change our language. Even if it is more awkward for us, it helps change our perception, which ultimately may lead us to treat all people with the respect and understanding they deserve.”

This change in wording is sometimes called “person-first language.” A “mentally ill person” becomes a “person with a mental illness.” “The disabled” becomes “people with disabilities.” A “drug addict” becomes a “person with a drug addiction.” It’s a way to honor a person’s inherent worth and dignity by separating their identity from whatever label or disability they might have. Put the person first, the label second.

A little food for thought about a way to honor our UU first principle and our commitment to mental health as a social-justice issue–with, I hope, the right amount of…

Peace and unrest,

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