Illness Labels and Social Distance



Amy Kroska, Sarah K. Harkness, Lauren S. Thomas, Ryan P. Brown

Society and Mental Health

November 2014



The authors examine a key proposition in the modified labeling theory—that a psychiatric label increases vulnerability to negative evaluation and social rejection—using an experimental design wherein female participants interact with a female teammate over a computer. The authors also evaluate a hypothesis derived from the disease-avoidance account of disgust by examining this same process for a nonpsychiatric illness: food poisoning. In addition, they introduce a composite measure of social distance behavior that is easy to implement in a laboratory experiment. The authors find, as predicted, that women seek greater social distance from teammates with a history of psychiatric or food poisoning hospitalization than they do from teammates with no hospitalization history. But, contrary to predictions, a teammate’s hospitalization history does not affect participants’ ratings of her likability. The results also do not vary significantly by psychiatric diagnosis (depression vs. schizophrenia), suggesting that the stigma of depression may be just as strong as the stigma of schizophrenia when information about symptoms is not available. The authors discuss the implications of these findings for the modified labeling theory of mental illness and for the literature on disgust and stigma. They also outline avenues for future research.









Human Services and Justice Coordinating Committee