Original Paper

Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology

, Volume 48, Issue 4, pp 659-671

First online:

Does labeling matter? An examination of attitudes and perceptions of labels for mental disorders

  • Andrew C. H. SzetoAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, University of CalgaryMental Health Commission of Canada Email author 
  • , Dorothy LuongAffiliated withc/o Bonnie Kirsh, Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, University of Toronto
  • , Keith S. DobsonAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, University of Calgary

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Labeling research in various domains has found that attitudes and perceptions vary as a function of the different labels ascribed to a group (e.g., overweight vs. obese). This type of research, however, has not been examined extensively in regards to labels for mental disorders. The present study examined whether common psychiatric labels (i.e., mental disease, mental disorders, mental health problems, and mental illness) elicited divergent attitudes and perceptions in a group of participants. These labels were also compared to the specific label of depression.


Undergraduate psychology students (N = 124) were given identical questionnaire packages with the exception of the label used. That is, each participant received a set of questionnaires that referred to only one of the five labels. The questionnaire package contained various quantitative measures of attitudes and social distance, in addition to a short qualitative measure.


Analyses demonstrated equivalence among the four general psychiatric labels on measures of attitudes, social distance, and general perceptions. However, results also suggested that the general labels diverged from the depression label, with the latter being generally more negatively perceived. Some analyses demonstrated that participants’ understanding of the terminology might be incorrect. The results of the investigation are discussed with a focus on its relationship with current research in stigma.


Within the current sample, general psychiatric labels did not appear to distinguish themselves from each other on measures of attitude and social distance but did so when compared to a relatively more specific term. Future research should examine the underlying mechanism driving this finding, with the ultimate goal of reducing the stigma faced by those with mental disorders.


Mental disorders Labels Attitudes Stigma