Labels are a tricky part of mental health awareness. On one hand, no one wants to be reduced to a label. On the other hand, labels give us a language to talk about mental health.

So does using labels for mental health conditions help or hurt people with those conditions? The answer appears to be: both, depending on the situation.

An example of when labels can help undercut stigma comes from a recent study by researchers at the University of Bath. In the study, 160 participants were put on a “jury” for a mock trial. They read a description of “a male who was brought to the attention of police for suspicious and aggressive behaviors and displayed atypical behaviors in court.”

Half of the people in the study were told that the defendant had autism spectrum disorder and were given basic information about what that entails. The other half were given no additional information about the defendant’s mental health status.

As it turned out, knowing that the defendant had autism spectrum disorder made people more likely to evaluate him sympathetically. They saw him as more honest and likable, and they ultimately delivered fewer guilty verdicts. Even when they did deliver guilty verdicts, they sentenced him more leniently.

By contrast, people who hadn’t been given this information saw the defendant as dishonest, rude, aggressive and lacking in remorse. They had less empathy for him and were less likely to see mitigating factors in his case. Overall, knowing the defendant’s mental health status made them more understanding of his behaviors.

Being labeled as having a mental health condition isn’t always helpful, though. A classic case of where it’s generally not helpful is in finding a job.

A 2016 study found that fictitious job applicants with a history of mental illness were less likely to get callbacks compared to similar applicants with a history of physical injury. In other words, the labor market is an example of a setting where a label related to mental health may be more likely to conjure up stigma than understanding.

This what makes labels double-edged: while they can give us a shorthand for explaining the behaviors associated with mental health conditions to the general public, they can also give us a shortcut to activating stigma. Another example comes from Japan, where the word for “schizophrenia” became so enmeshed with negative and inaccurate connotations that psychiatrists in the country decided the best course of action was to rename the condition entirely.

To some extent labels are, of course, a necessity in psychiatry. We have to have some way of naming conditions that are shared by many people. The more ambiguous question is in how we use labels when spreading mental health awareness to the general public.

As these studies show, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to how we use labels outside of medical settings. Depending on the specifics of the environment, a label can be a useful tool for explaining mental health conditions or a lightning rod for stigma.

Image: Flickr/Enokson