The Danger of Labels
Gabriele Barrocas | October 26th, 2023
Labels Create Stigma and Discrimination
Our world is in danger. The threat? Labels. Diagnostic labels can be beneficial, aiding professionals in providing treatment for individuals with certain symptoms and utilizing the diagnoses for research purposes. However, there is a problem with this since stigmas are developed when labels are introduced. Stigmas, characterized by discrediting perceptions and attitudes towards those with certain conditions, frequently become deeply ingrained in society. Labels prompt stigma activation and create stereotypes that are often negatively embedded into society. They influence how individuals seek medical help, lead to avoidance and discrimination, and impact how individuals go about their everyday lives. When an individual is aware of the stigma, they are more likely to internalize the discrimination, ultimately resulting in the manifestation of detrimental behaviors that harm self-esteem (Kaushik et al., 2016).
About one in 10 children and adolescents have mental health challenges, however, only 1/3 of this number seek treatment. Left untreated, the individual may suffer from long-lasting impacts, like developmental and health concerns, that can be detrimental to how they interact with society (Patel et al., 2007). A study conducted in 2017 found that in 200 individuals with mental illness had poorer recovery after one or two years if they had greater self-stigma (Oexle et al., 2018). The researchers found that internalization of stigma hinders mental health recovery and decreased acceptance of oneself. The stigma surrounding mental health is also found in the workplace, presenting major challenges for workers. A 2019 poll found that about half of workers are afraid to discuss their mental health issues at work. In fact, more than one in three workers are concerned about being fired or receiving other consequences if they seek mental health care (“About Half of Workers Are Concerned about Discussing Mental Health Issues in the Workplace; A Third Worry about Consequences If They Seek Help,” 2019).
This doesn’t just apply to mental disorders, labels are consistently used in our society too. As humans, we unconsciously try to classify things to make sense of the complexities of our surroundings. Class is one of them. In another study by John Darley and Paget Gross, they told some college students that a young girl named Hannah was of high socioeconomic status and another group of students that she was of low socioeconomic status. Nothing about the socioeconomic data revealed any information about Hannah’s academic ability but those who thought she was of high economic status believed she was above grade level while those who thought she was of a lower socioeconomic status identified her abilities as below grade level. The study suggests that when given some sort of “stereotype” information, individuals will create hypotheses about the individual in other contexts (Darley & Gross, 1983). In other words, people oftentimes will form expectancies based on information they’re given. These people will begin to actively find other information to confirm that their expectancies and labels are correct. We conjure up stories in our heads to confirm the stereotypes and ignore conflicting information. It just shows that labels cause more harm than good due to their inaccuracy and oversimplification.
From the Perspective of a Vanderbilt Professor
As I delved into my literature research, questions about how labels are perceived and managed within the Vanderbilt community emerged. To gain insights into this matter, I conducted interviews with two professors at Vanderbilt, Dr. Tara Todd, the Director of Undergraduate Studies for Chemistry, and Dr. Amanda Avona, a distinguished Neuroscience Professor. My choice of Dr. Todd and Dr. Avona was deliberate, as they both stand as advocates for mental health within the STEM field, making their perspectives invaluable.
On campus, one of the most efficient ways of making a more inclusive society without labels is to normalize time off for students with general health or mental health problems and provide general support. Dr. Tara Todd is aware of the mental health struggles that students face. Dr. Todd said, “I think by acknowledging that we struggle, and I like to use the word we, as there are times in our lives where we all face difficulties, it helps students to recognize that struggle is real, and struggle is normal.” Dr. Todd acknowledges that she isn’t an expert in this field of mental health, but she tries to encourage her students to find resources on campus where they can receive professional help. Dr. Amanda Avona similarly said, “The important thing is that students seek help when they are experiencing these struggles and that they don’t fear being labeled to the point of avoiding help.” She continued, “The most important thing we can do is be empathetic to one another and try to help those that are struggling.” Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share feelings of others. By utilizing empathy, we can help foster a sense of community that is built on support and communication, rather than labels and categories.
Undoubtedly, the Vanderbilt community is attuned to the mental health challenges that students may encounter and the potential harm that labels can bring when addressing these issues. Vanderbilt makes sure that resources are widely accessible for all students so that everyone can feel safe and supported. We need to all work together to create a more inclusive environment for others where everyone can thrive. It’s so important that we help build our Vanderbilt community up to remove the stigma surrounding mental health labels and be there for one another.
About Half of Workers Are Concerned about Discussing Mental Health Issues in the Workplace; A Third Worry about Consequences if They Seek Help. (2019). American Psychiatric Association. https://www.psychiatry.org/newsroom/news-releases/about-half-of-workers-are-concerned-about-discussing-mental-health-issues-in-the-workplace-a-third-worry-about-consequences-if-they-seek-help
Darley, J., & Gross, P. (1983). A Hypothesis-Confirming Bias in Labeling Effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44(1). http://bear.warrington.ufl.edu/brenner/mar7588/Papers/darley-gross-jpsp1983.pdf
Kaushik, A., Kyriakopoulos, M., & Kostaki, E. (2016). The stigma of mental illness in children and adolescents: A systematic review. Psychiatry Research, 469–494. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2016.04.042
Oexle, N., Muller, M., Wyss, C., Kawohl, W., Xu, Z., Viering, S., Vetter, S., & Rusch, N. (2018). Self-stigma as a barrier to recovery: A longitudinal study. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 209–212. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00406-017-0773-2Patel, V., McGorry, P., Hetrick, S., & Flisher, A. (2007). Mental health of young people: A global public-health challenge. The Lancet, 369(9569), 1302–1313. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(07)60368-7