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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Effects of Language on Social Essentialist Beliefs and Stigma about Mental Illness


Labeling social groups can increase social essentialism (e.g., beliefs that group members are fundamentally the same), leading to greater discrimination and stigmatization. Labels can also increase stigma about mental illness (MI). Some mental health professionals claim that using "person-first" language can reduce stigma, but there is little empirical support for this, and no studies have investigated the relation between person-first language and social essentialism. Here, 513 adults read vignettes describing characters with MI, using person-first (e.g., "a person with autism"), identity-first (e.g., "an autistic person"), or generic noun language (e.g., "an autistic"). We assessed participants' stigmatizing and essentialist beliefs about characters and their MI. Reported stigma and essentialism were correlated. Person-first language reduced stigmatizing beliefs about individuals with some disorders, e.g., depression, but not others, e.g., autism. Relative to generic nouns, person-first language reduced essentialist beliefs about real mental illnesses, but not novel ones.

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