Research & Insights
Destigmatizing Mental Illness
By Wayne Rivera
How people think about the causes of mental illness has an impact on how they treat others with the illness.
People are more likely to stigmatize others who have a mental illness when they think it is caused by genetics rather than the environment, according to a study by psychology scholar Aaron Lee and his colleagues at the University of Wyoming.
The study, published in the May 2013 journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, involved 149 undergraduate students who read a description of symptoms related to depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Participants were then divided into two groups. One group read a message that attributed mental illness to genetics, and the other read a message that described mental illness as a result of the environment, such as describing schizophrenia as a consequence of a stressful situations.
After, they responded to a series of questions to measure their beliefs about mental illness including what they believed to be the cause, how willing they were to interact with people who suffered from the illness, how dangerous they believed people with mental illness were and how empathetic they felt.
The students were then presented a volunteer opportunity involving contact with people suffering from mental illness to measure the participants’ willingness to help people with mental illness.
Participants who believed that people suffering from mental illness were dangerous were less likely to want to interact with or help them.
“Compared to environmental attributions, genetic attributions lead to greater perceptions of dangerousness, which are in turn associated with greater desire for social distance from a person with schizophrenia,” the researchers said.
To help people with mental illness, the researchers suggests efforts should focus on reducing perceptions of the illness as dangerous and use language that minimizes a desire to create distance.
Aaron A. Lee, Sean M. Laurent, Thomas L. Wykes, Katherine A. Kitchen Andren , Katelynn A. Bourassa, Christine L. McKibbin, University of Wyoming
Wayne Rivera is a frankology contributor and student in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Florida.