Developmental Conceptualization of Illness Constructs: Children's and Adults' Perceptions of Mental and Physical Illnesses

Lauren Elizabeth Latella, Fordham University


To date, much of the research examining individuals’ assumptions related to the causes, symptoms, and health-promoting behaviors associated with illness has not examined how individuals perceive mental illness and whether they conceptualize the attributes related to mental and physical illnesses similarly. Researchers have primarily highlighted developmental trends in physical illness constructs without assessing for these trends in mental illness. This research is also over two decades old and does not consider various age groups of children despite children’s ability to use causal reasoning skills and infer about their internal and external worlds at relatively young ages. Therefore, children likely can reason about the causes, symptoms, and behaviors of illness concepts. To address these gaps, 178 children (7- to 12-year-old) and 131 adults engaged in a false recognition task after reading two passages; one about mental illness and one about physical illness. False recognition accuracy scores were calculated to determine how children and adults understood the causes, symptoms, and preventive behaviors associated with both mental and physical illness types. Regardless of age, participants conceptualized mental illness distinctly from physical illness. Developmental differences were seen in relation to illness symptoms and preventive behaviors. For example, 7- to 9-year-old and 10- to12-year-old children conceptualized mental illness concepts as caused by characterological features whereas adults utilized interpersonal explanations for mental illness. Implications for clinical practice are discussed with an emphasis on tailoring health education materials to reflect the developmental conceptualization of illness constructs and promote emotional literacy in young children.

Subject Area

Health sciences|Counseling Psychology|Cognitive psychology

Recommended Citation

Latella, Lauren Elizabeth, "Developmental Conceptualization of Illness Constructs: Children's and Adults' Perceptions of Mental and Physical Illnesses" (2019). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI13424251.